Thursday, October 11, 2012

History of Vital Records

Ever wonder why we have birth, marriage and death records? Last night we found out when Susan Faulkner gave her presentation for the monthly TCGS meeting. It has been said, that to truly understand the information we learn from records, we need to know why they were created. The answer to that was loud and clear last night when Susan explained why and how vital records were started.

While I have always understood why church records were recorded, I had never thought about the origin of vital records – Statistics! Surprising? for me it was. It was purely because things were happening to the population that could not be explained. By statistically studying the effects on the whole population, patterns emerged which allowed the government to help solve or at least be aware of problems, such as health trends. Death records especially provided excellent information on why people were dying when the causes of the death were compared to others nearby as well as nationwide.

Sadly, vital record collection, in spite of knowing the reasons for collecting the information, was not begun throughout the United States successfully until 1933. Today both genealogists, statisticians, and many others know the value of recording vital events in our society, but this is definitely a 20th century accomplishment.

Susan quoted, “National statistics of death and birth were achieved only within the present generation, after two centuries [200 years!] of intermittent struggle and building. [emphasis added]”1

So the next time you find a vital record for your ancestor, thank those who championed the collecting of this information, such as John of Gaunt, Edmund Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame), Oliver Cromwell and the English, Lemuel Shattuck of Massachusetts and many others who brought modern record keeping to the United States.

If you missed Susan’s excellent presentation, some of her information can be found in Val D. Greenwood’s book, A Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000), 203-232.


1 Oveta Culp Hobby and Leonard A Scheele in their report titled “Vital Statistics of the United States, Volume 1” dated 1950.