Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards gives tips for finding and using civil records in your genealogy research, and provides a list of when each state began recording such records. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England.
Old newspaper articles are a great way to discover the stories of your ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in. To fill in a more complete picture of their lives, you will also want to find their vital statistics, such as birth and death dates – and in addition to newspapers, this information can be found in government records.
Civil Records: What Are They?
Births, marriages and deaths were often recorded by the state, but each state started keeping track of these records at different periods of time (outside the U.S. they are generally called “civil registrations”).
There are many different names for these state departments or agencies: “Bureau of Vital Statistics”; “Division of Records and Statistics”; “Division of Public Health”; and “Vital Records Division” are just a few. No matter the name, the state agency is where you go to obtain birth, marriage and death certificates. States require a fee for each certificate, generally from $5 to $25.
In most cases, you pay first and then wait for the state agency to mail the record to you. Responses vary widely and can take anywhere from a week to several months. Most states have a rule to not release certificates of birth until after that person is 72 or 75 years of age, but some wait until 100 or even as long as 125 years after the person’s birth (check with that state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics).
When Did Civil Records Start in a Certain State or American Territory?
The first state to start keeping vital records was Massachusetts in 1841, and the last was New Mexico in 1920. Knowing when a state officially introduced a policy of statewide registration can save you time and effort writing for records that don’t exist. So, look at the list below to see the availability of death and birth certificates state by state, including territories:
- Alabama: 1908 (birth certificates are confidential records with restricted access for 125 years from the date of birth).
- Alaska: 1818.
- American Samoa: This is a very complicated area, as prior to British occupation (some records date to 1852 and are available through FamilySearch.org) the genealogy was passed orally. It became an unorganized U.S. territory in 1900. You can find more information at FamilySearch’s Samoa Vital Records The Island part commonly called Western Samoa was occupied by the German Empire from 1899 to 1915, and by a joint British and New Zealand colonial administration until 1 January 1962, so records may or may not be available and you may have to contact multiple sources to get answers.
- Arizona: July 1909, and was generally complied with by the year 1926 – however, the state maintains a sampling of delayed birth records of Arizona citizens (from 1855) and death records (from 1877) from other sources.
- Arkansas: 1 February 1914. A limited number of records are available prior to 1914, with the birth records dated prior to 1914 being filed with the Division of Vital Records.
- California: July 1905. (For earlier records, contact the County Recorder in the county where the event occurred.) In 1968, the California Public Records Act was passed by the State Legislature and signed by the Governor, requiring the disclosure of governmental records to the public upon request unless otherwise exempted by the law.
- Colorado: Births were not officially registered with the state until approximately 1908. Before that time there is no guarantee that a record of a birth exists. A few counties recorded births during that time. In 1908 the state began recording “delayed births,” which retroactively document some births before 1908.
- Connecticut: 1 July 1897.
- Delaware: A 1906 state law states that once a birth record reaches 72 years of age, and death records 40 years of age, they then become open to the public. Prior to 1913, it was the duty of each county’s Recorder of Deeds to record the births, marriages, and deaths of the state. At the end of every three months, the Recorder was to furnish a copy of such records to the Secretary of the State Board of Health. Records voluntarily obtained were the responsibility of the Recorder of Deeds. In 1913, the central Bureau of Vital Statistics was established with the Secretary of the Board of Health serving as its State Registrar.
- District of Columbia: 1874, and was generally complied with by 1915 for births and 1880 for deaths.
- Federated States of Micronesia: This collection contains birth and death certificates from islands and nations in the Federated States of Micronesia and the former Trust Territory of the Pacific. Many of the certificates are delayed registrations. The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was established in 1947 following World War II. The Territory is now divided into the Republic of the Marshall Islands (1986), Federated States of Micronesia (1986), Republic of Palau (1981), and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (1986).
- Florida: 1899, and was generally complied with by 1920. Some earlier city and county records have been deposited with the state office. They include incomplete records of births from 1865 to 1917 and incomplete records of deaths from 1877 to 1917.
- Georgia: 1919. Records before that date are generally not available.
- Guam: 16 October 1901.
- Hawaii: Prior to 1860, Hawaii birth records (as well as Hawaii death records) were recorded by government authorities and some clergymen. Hawaii vital records went statewide with the registration of births in 1842 and deaths in 1859. Beginning in 1911, a person whose birth was not registered could apply for a delayed certificate of birth.
- Idaho: 1911.
- Illinois: Most counties did not begin recording births until 1877. Birth records prior to 1916 were recorded only by county clerks, but beginning in 1916 county clerks and the Department of Public Health jointly maintained birth records.
- Indiana: Did not issue birth and death certificates until 1882, and such records were not mandatory or collected at the state level until 1907. So, before 1882, there are no government-issued certificates recording these life events.
- Iowa: 1 July 1880.
- Kansas: Statewide registration of births and deaths began in July 1911, but delayed registrations of births started in 1937.
- Kentucky: Started keeping birth and death records in 1852, stopped in 1862, started again in 1874, but did not mandate this information be kept until 1 January 1911. Before that date, births and deaths were recorded at the county level and copies were forwarded to the state each year.
- Louisiana: Pre-1914 birth and death records exist for some Louisiana parishes. These are generally more complete after the 1860s. Orleans Parish began keeping birth records in 1790 and deaths records in 1804.
- Maine: 1 July 1892. As of 30 July 2004, the Maine CDC Vital Records Office has established and maintains a Domestic Partner Registry.
- Marshall Islands: This collection contains birth and death certificates from islands and nations in the Federated States of Micronesia and the former Trust Territory of the Pacific. Many of the certificates are delayed registrations. The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was established in 1947 following World War II. The Territory is now divided into the Republic of the Marshall Islands (1986), Federated States of Micronesia (1986), Republic of Palau (1981), and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (1986).
- Maryland: August 1898.
- Massachusetts: The recording of these records was ordered by the government as early as 1639, though not all places followed the law. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state to create a permanent, statewide recording system, starting in 1841.
- Michigan: As early as 1867, and divorce records as early as 1897.
- Minnesota: Legislation in 1870 ordered county-level recording of vital records; the Minnesota Vital Records law enacted in 1907 mandated recording of births and deaths at the state level.
- Mississippi: November 1912.
- Missouri: In 1883 Missouri passed a state law requiring the recording of births and deaths at the county level. Ten years later this law was inadvertently repealed, but compliance was poor. Most counties do have these registers, but there is enormous variation as to how complete and/or comprehensive they are.
- Montana: Late 1907.
- Nebraska: 1904 – but are not complete for that year.
- Nevada: 1 July 1911.
- New Hampshire: Official records of births, marriages, and deaths occurring in each town or city have been kept by town clerks since the early 1600s.
- New Jersey: The state has the oldest collection of continuous birth and death records, dating from May 1848 – but New Jersey vital records are not public records. Their release is restricted to family, with requests for 1901-present records.
- New Mexico: In 1907 each county was required to keep birth and death records. Records dating from the 1880s are available for a few counties.
- New York: 1880-81, under supervision of the state and local boards of health, but compliance with the law was incomplete until 1913 or even later, so certificates are lacking for many events.
- North Carolina: On 10 March 1913 the State Assembly ratified an act requiring the registration of births and deaths in the state, and full compliance was achieved by 1920, with some delayed birth records for earlier dates eventually added.
- North Dakota: 1907, and was generally complied with by 1924.
- Northern Mariana Islands: Has records for birth and death since 1946 and records for marriage since 1954. Years from 1946 to 1950 are incomplete. This collection contains birth and death certificates from islands and nations in the Federated States of Micronesia and the former Trust Territory of the Pacific. Many of the certificates are delayed registrations. The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was established in 1947 following World War II. The Territory is now divided into the Republic of the Marshall Islands (1986), Federated States of Micronesia (1986), Republic of Palau (1981), and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (1986).
- Ohio: Obligatory recording on a state level of births and deaths in Ohio began 20 December 1908, but birth records prior to 20 December 1908 are available from the probate court of the county where the event occurred.
- Oklahoma: October of 1908, but the filing of these records became mandatory in 1917 – and did not become routine until the 1940s when they began to be used for identification purposes.
- Oregon: 1903.
- Palau: This collection contains birth and death certificates from islands and nations in the Federated States of Micronesia and the former Trust Territory of the Pacific. Many of the certificates are delayed registrations. The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was established in 1947 following World War II. The Territory is now divided into the Republic of the Marshall Islands (1986), Federated States of Micronesia (1986), Republic of Palau (1981), and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (1986).
- Pennsylvania: 1 January 1906. Prior to 1906, Pennsylvania births and deaths were recorded only sporadically by the counties and some cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Genealogists must rely on county records.
- Philippines: Copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates from the Archives Division of the Bureau of Records Management. Includes many localities throughout the Philippines, primarily from 1922 to 1932, but some beginning as early as 1902 and ending as late as 1935.
- Puerto Rico: FamilySearch’s Puerto Rico Civil Registration collection contains civil records from 1805 to 2001 from the 78 municipalities (“municipios”), but older records are handwritten in narrative style, and the newer ones are handwritten in formatted records.
- Rhode Island: Some birth records were kept as early as the 1630s, with more complete records after 1700. Statewide registration of births began in 1853, with complete records by 1915.
- South Carolina: The state did not issue birth and death certificates prior to 1 January 1915, but it did institute a number of laws regarding the registry of births and deaths, some going back as far as 1 March 1669 or 1670. These laws, however, were apparently not implemented or were simply ignored.
- South Dakota: July 1905.
- Tennessee: There are birth records for the years 1908-1912 and 1914-1920. (The year 1913 is considered to be a “dead year” for birth records in Tennessee, since no birth records were recorded at the state level during that year.
- Texas: 1903.
- U.S. Virgin Islands: Search the FamilySearch U.S. Virgin Islands Online Genealogy Records for this area and many of the other islands in the Caribbean.
- Utah: Civil recording began in 1905, but there are church records going back further if the parties were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and they were married or sealed in an LDS temple.
- Vermont: 1909, but vital records were kept on the town level, and the date when formal record keeping began varied from place to place, with some records dating back to early Colonial days. A law requiring civil registration went on the books in 1779, but compliance was not universal.
- Virginia: From 14 June 1912 to the present, from the Division of Vital Statistics. The Archives Division of the Library of Virginia has copies of some birth records from 1853 to 1896.
- Washington: Records prior to 1907 were kept in birth and death registers by county auditors, maintained at the county level. Many have been microfilmed and are housed at the Washington State Archives.
- West Virginia: It is likely that the official reporting and recording of births, deaths, and marriages was mandated from the creation of the state in 1863, as it was the law in Virginia (from which West Virginia was created) beginning around 1852.
- Wisconsin: 1852, but the law was not strictly enforced until roughly 1880. Most records date from 1880 or later.
- Wyoming: July 1909, and was generally complied with by 1922. Individuals who were born prior to 1909, or who for some reason did not have a birth certificate, could apply for a delayed birth certificate.