Pennsylvania Vital Records
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Although a colonial law of 1682 provided for the recording of births, marriages, and burials in Pennsylvania, few if any of these events were ever entered in civil records. A new law in the mid-nineteenth century required the county register of wills to record these events, with copies sent to Harrisburg. These records, covering 1852 to 1854 but surviving and incomplete for only forty-nine counties, might still be found the courthouses, with duplicate returns at the Pennsylvania State Archives, where microfilms of many are available. Indexes to these records are arranged first by county, then by event, then by year. Microfilms of some of these records are also available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (see Pennsylvania Archives, Libraries and Societies), the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and the State Library of Pennsylvania. Additionally, Closson Press of Apollo, Pennsylvania, has published the records for most of the extant counties. From 1860 through 1893, births and deaths were recorded in Philadelphia. Other cities, such as Allegheny, Easton, Harrisburg, Pottsville, Pittsburgh, and Williamsport, also maintained vital records later in the nineteenth century, although there are gaps in the records. Since 1885 the clerk of the orphans’ court in each county has had the responsibility of recording marriages. Microfilms of some of these records are at the state archives and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Births and deaths in Pennsylvania were also recorded in the county orphans’ courts (1893–1906), and here also may be found delayed registrations of birth for events occurring as far back as the 1860s. The state archives has microfilms of some of these records; the Philadelphia City Archives and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania have them for Philadelphia (1860–1915).
Statewide registration of births and deaths has occurred since 1906, although compliance with the law was scattered for at least the first ten years. To request these records, complete form H105.102 and submit it with the current fee of $10 for a birth record or $10 for a death record to Division of Vital Statistics, State Department of Health, Central Building, 101 S. Mercer St., P.O. Box 1528, New Castle, PA 16103-1528. Further instructions, fees, and downloadable forms are online at The Pennsylvania Department of Health. Application can also be made at one of the following five Division of Vital Records branch offices: Health & Welfare Building, Rm 129, Foster St. and Commonwealth Ave., P.O. Box 90, Harrisburg, PA 17120-0090; Rm 902, 401 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19108; Rm 512, 300 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222; 3832 Liberty St., Erie, PA 16509; or 100 Lackawanna Ave., Scranton, PA 18503. Military personnel can obtain free birth certificates.
Marriage licenses were not required in colonial Pennsylvania, but information from surviving marriage bonds (1743–90) was published in Pennsylvania Archives, series 2, volume 2, and reprinted with some other records as Pennsylvania Marriages Prior to 1790 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984). These records provide the names of the couple and the date of the bond. See also “List of Marriage Licenses Issued in the Secretary’s Office, from August 1755 through April 1759” in Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 21 (1960): 312-27. Many early church marriage records were published in Pennsylvania Archives, series 2, vols. 8 and 9, and reprinted as Record of Pennsylvania Marriages Prior to 1810, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987). The three-volume Pennsylvania Vital Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983) reprints a number of articles containing births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and divorces from The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine.
Aside from the exceptions noted above and for marriages recorded from 1885 in the county Orphans’ Courts, nineteenth-century civil vital records in Pennsylvania are practically non-existent. It is important, therefore, to make use of substitutes such as church and justice of the peace records, grave marker inscriptions and burial records, newspaper marriage and death notices, and censuses. John T. Humphrey compiled a series of Pennsylvania Births to 1800 for the counties of Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, and York (various publishers, 1991–98) taken from over two hundred church registers and Quaker monthly meeting records. All but York County is also on CD-ROM: Birth Index: Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1680–1800, Family Tree Maker Family Archive #196 (Brøderbund, 1998).
Most Pennsylvania divorce records from 1804 are found in the county court of common pleas, where the prothonotary is usually the clerk with custody of the records. Only two divorces found in the Pennsylvania Statutes at Large exist for the colonial period—one granted in 1769 and a second voided in 1772. Divorces were granted, mostly for adultery, by the General Assembly during and following the Revolutionary War, for which one should consult Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania, beginning with volume 7. The assembly had jurisdiction from 1776 to 1847 (see Candy Crocker Livengood, Genealogical Abstracts of Pennsylvania & the Statutes at Large [Westminster, Md.: Family Line Publications, 1990], and also Joel Fishman, “A Bibliographical Description of the Legal Works Cited in Candy Livengood’s Genealogical Abstracts of the Laws of Pennsylvania & Statutes at Large ,” Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society Quarterly 22 : 6–7). The supreme court had concurrent jurisdiction of granting divorces from 1785 to 1804, and its records to 1801 were published in Publications of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania 1 (1898): 185-92, and reprinted in Pennsylvania Vital Records (see above), 425–31. A list of 383 divorces and annulments granted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (but not including many divorce petitions not granted) is found in Thomas L. Yoset, “Divorces Granted by the Pennsylvania Legislature (1770–1874),” Crawford County Genealogy 21 (1998): 53-82. The state archives has divorce papers (1786–1815) from the records of the Supreme Court. Philadelphia divorce dockets (1851–74) are in that city’s archives.
FamilySearch.org has a variety of collections available for free online:
- Pennsylvania, Births and Christenings, 1709-1950
- Pennsylvania, Marriages, 1709-1940
- Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885-1950
Philadelphia databases are also available on FamilySearch:
- Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Births, 1860-1906
- Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Marriage Indexes, 1885-1951
- Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915
For Pittsburgh, see:
- The Pennsylvania Department of Health has placed birth indexes for 1906 and death indexes from 1906-1961 online. They can be found here: PA Dept of Health Vitals Indexes
- Pennsylvania Birth, Marriage, and Death Records - free up-to-date guide to accessing Pennsylvania birth, marriage, and death records (FamilySearch Research Wiki). Includes links to FamilySearch vital record databases.