Virginia Vital Records
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This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
The first laws of Virginia were called the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, and were enacted by Sir Thomas Dale in 1610. Dale’s Code required colonial Virginia ministers to record all christenings, marriages, and burials in registers, in much the same way those events were recorded in England. Most of the registers compiled in response to the law have not survived. In 1619 ministers were required to present the register to the Secretary of the Colony, and in 1642 the parish clerks were required to submit a monthly list of vital records to the “commander of every monethly court.” Few, if any, of the monthly lists were recorded.
The House of Burgesses strengthened the law regarding vital records in March 1660. Act 20, An Act to record all Marriages, Births and Burials, decreed, “That every parish shall well, truly and plainly record and sett downe in a booke provided for that purpose, all marriages, deaths and births that shall happen within the precincts of the parish, and in the month of March in every yeare, the person appointed by the parish so to do, shall make true certificate into the clerke of every county to the intent the same may there remaine on record for ever.” If the county clerks recorded the certificates, they are unfortunately lost.
Marriage in early Virginia was by publication of banns. In 1631 the House of Burgesses directed that marriage licenses were to be granted by the governor, although couples could have banns read instead and pay less for their marriage. Consent, either written or verbal, was required for anyone under twenty-one and for all servants. Marriages were not to be performed “at any unreasonable tymes but only betweene the howers of eight and twelve in the forenoone.”
Marriage bonds were first required as part of the licensing procedure in 1661. The couple wishing a license gave bond to the county clerk that there was no lawful impediment to their marriage; the clerk then issued a license. Every September, the clerk forwarded to the Secretary of the Colony a list of licenses issued. These records were burned in the various fires at Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Richmond.
The existing marriage laws were superseded by an 1853 state law requiring county and independent city clerks to issue marriage licenses and keep marriage registers. Before a license was issued, the parties to be married had to offer the following information: full names, ages, places of birth and residence, proposed marriage date and place, marital status (widowed or single), parents’ names, groom’s occupation, and minister’s name. After the marriage ceremony, the minister returned the information to the clerk, who recorded it in a marriage register. Many counties have the original form on file at the courthouse.
The majority of pre-1853 Virginia marriage records have been published. The Library of Virginia and the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City have the most complete collections of published Virginia marriage records; however, state and genealogical libraries nationwide also have excellent collections. For reference to these, see either John Vogt and T. William Kethley, Jr., Marriage Records in the Virginia State Library: A Researcher’s Guide, 2d ed. (Athens, Ga.: Iberian Publishing Co., 1988), or Virginia Marriage Records from the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, The William and Mary Quarterly, and Tyler’s Quarterly (reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2002). A detailed explanation of marriage records is found in Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds., The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997).
Virginia was one of the first states outside of New England to require its counties to record births and deaths. Registration on the county level began in 1853 and continued until 1896. Many counties abandoned registration during the Civil War, or at best recorded only a small percentage of births and deaths. Except in some independent cities, records were not kept between 1896 and 14 June 1912, when statewide registration of vital statistics began. Early birth records and indexes (1853–96), marriage records (1853–1935), and death records (1853–96) have been microfilmed and are available at the Library of Virginia and the FHL. Additionally, the Library of Virginia has marriage indexes on microfilm (1853–1935). A fully searchable online database for deaths is being developed and will eventually include 1853–96. See http://eagle.vsla.edu/drip/. Researchers can access links to birth, marriage, and death records on microfilm <www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/vital/BMDregisters/index.htm>.
Due to limited resources, the Virginia Department of Health will not provide copies of vital records for genealogy purposes. Certificates can be obtained by immediate family members only; thus, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, grandparents, etc., cannot obtain copies of vital records. Immediate family members can obtain a copy of a vital record from the Office of Vital Records, P.O. Box 1000, Richmond, VA 23218-1000, within four to six weeks. Required forms can be downloaded or printed at www.vdh.state.va.us/vitalrec/vtlapp.asp. The Virginia Health Department has contracted with the VitalChek Network (see page 1) to assist people in obtaining birth, death, marriage, or divorce certificates within two to five days.
Virginia divorce records from 1 January 1853 to the present are only obtainable from the Division of Vital Records (see address above). Earlier records are filed with the clerk of the circuit court or the Virginia General Assembly.
The Library of Virginia has a large collection of Virginia Bible records that can provide vital records information. See Lyndon H. Hart, A Guide to Bible Records in the Library of Virginia (reprint, Richmond, Va.: Library of Virginia, 1999). See also “Using Vital Statistics Records in the Archives” online at www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/vital/rn2_vitalstats.htm.