Tennessee Vital Records
This entry was originally written by Wendy Bebout Elliott, Ph.D. FUGA in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Several early attempts were made to record births and deaths statewide, but these were not effective until 1908 when the first statewide registration began. An older reference for this information is Guide to Public Vital Statistics in Tennessee (Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society Records Survey, 1941).
A 1914 state law required statewide registration of births, marriages, and deaths, but general compliance was incomplete until the late 1920s. Birth records for the last 100 years and deaths, marriages, and divorces for the last fifty years are available from Tennessee Office of Vital Records, 421 Fifth Ave. North, Nashville, TN 37247-0460. Records before these cutoff periods are at the Tennessee State Library and Archives or in the county, as described below.
Beginning in 1881 some counties maintained birth and death records. A few continued for a longer period. These original records are housed in the county courthouses with many microfilm copies at the Tennessee State Library and Archives and The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City.
Birth records for Nashville from June 1881, Knoxville from July 1881, and Chattanooga from January 1882 are available at the Division of Vital Records in Nashville, although these records are incomplete. Records for Memphis are extant from 1 April 1874 through December 1887 and from 1 November 1898 to 1 January 1914. These are available from the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department, Division of Vital Statistics, 814 Jefferson St., Memphis, TN 38105.
Some deaths were recorded for Nashville as early as July 1874, Knoxville from 1 July 1887, and Chattanooga from 6 March 1872. These are maintained in the Vital Records Office in Nashville. Records for Memphis are extant from 1874 to 1886 and from 1898 to 1 January 1914. Some Memphis death records are extant from 1 May 1848. These can be obtained from the Shelby County Archives and Memphis-Shelby County Health Department (address above). The Tennessee State Library and Archives maintains a register of the deaths recorded between 1908 and 1912 that does not include parents’ names. A partial index to these is available on the TSLA website at www.state.tn.us/sos/statelib/pubsvs/death.htm and an index to death notices from Nashville newspapers is at the library.
Marriages were recorded in counties prior to statehood, a few as early as 1778, such as those for Green (1780), Washington (1787), Hawkins (1789), Carter (1790), Jefferson and Knox (1792), and Blount (1795). However, a state law requiring the registration of marriages did not pass until 1815. A subsequent state law in 1838 required marriages to be registered in “well-bound books.” Between 1838 and 1919 both marriage licenses and bonds were recorded. In the 1880s marriage records began to include additional information including: names of bride and groom, dates of license and marriage, ages and birthplaces of bride and groom, places of residence at the time of marriage, and groom’s occupation. Many county vital records began in that same year.
Most early marriage records for the state have been microfilmed and are available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Marriage records are arranged by county (see Tennessee County Resources). Some county records are on microfilm and available through interlibrary loan from TSLA. Most are available at the FHL.
An additional source for marriage records are Byron Sistler and Associates’ compilations. Their six volumes are divided by geographical section (two each for east, middle, and west) and arranged alphabetically for grooms in one volume and brides in the other. Each entry lists names of couple, date of license and ceremony (when available), and county of record. Edythe Rucker Whitley compiled and published separate marriage records for numerous counties, for example:
- Whitley, Edythe Rucker, comp. Marriages of Blount County, Tennessee, 1795–1859. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1982.
- ———. Marriages of Claiborne County, Tennessee, 1838–1850, and Campbell County, Tennessee, 1838–1853. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983.
The Works Project Administration (WPA) copied many early Tennessee marriage records; these are available in some counties, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, the Allen County Public Library (Ft. Wayne, Indiana), and the FHL. These transcripts contain numerous errors; originals should always be checked. The Tennessee State Library and Archives has microfilm copies available on interlibrary loan. An early Tennessee marriage index and an index to marriage notices published by Nashville newspapers are both available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Prior to 1834, divorces could only be granted by an act of the general assembly; therefore, these records are among the legislative papers. The state constitution of 1834 took the power to grant divorces from the legislature and authorized courts to grant them. Divorce records are normally maintained by the respective county’s circuit court. Those for the past fifty years are available at the Tennessee Office of Vital Records. Early divorce records are compiled in Gale W. Bamman and Debbie W. Spero, Tennessee Divorces, 1797–1858 (Nashville: G. Bamman, 1985), which abstracts 750 divorce records statewide.