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Maryland’s early vital statistics law

It was one of those laws that The Legal Genealogist loves … indeed, that would warm the cockles of the heart of any genealogist anywhere.

MD.VSPassed by the General Assembly of Maryland — that state’s legislature — on the 24th of March 1865, it is entitled “An Act, to provide for the Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths,”1 and I came across it while preparing for tomorrow’s Pratt Annual Genealogy Lecture — a set of four presentations on genealogy and the law at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.

Under its provisions, to take effect on July 1, 1865, births, marriages and deaths in each county and in Baltimore City were to be recorded — by the clerks of the Circuit Courts in the counties and by the clerk of the Court of Common Pleas in Baltimore.2

And oh… what information the law required to be recorded…

For births: “the date of the births, the place of birth, the name of the child, (if it have any,) the sex and color of the child, the names of the parents, the occupation of the father , the residence of the parents, and the date of the record.”3

For marriages: “the date of the marriage, the place of the marriage, the name, place of residence and official station, or title of the person by whom married, the names and places of residence of each of the parties, the age and color of each, the condition of each, (whether singled or widowed,) the occupation and the date of record…”4

For deaths: “the date of the death, the name of the deceased, the sex the color, the condition, (whether single, widowed or married,) the age, the residence, the occupation, the place of death, the place of birth, the names and place of residence of the parents, the disease or cause of death, the place of burial and the date of record.”5

So… if you have Marylanders in your family tree who were born, married or died after the first of July 1865, you have a wonderful resource just waiting for you, don’t you?

Um… no.

Don’t we wish…

Because here’s something we don’t always keep in mind when we’re looking at these or any laws.

They weren’t always followed or enforced.

Even though this law technically had teeth — there was supposed to be a fine for any householder who didn’t report a birth or death6 and anybody who had charge of a burial of a stranger or friendless person and didn’t report properly7 — the simple fact is: “compliance with the law was poor. Very few citizens of Maryland took the trouble to register births with the circuit court …”8 As to marriages, “Compliance was poor and ceased completely after 1867.”9 And “(v)ery few Marylanders bothered to register burials with the circuit court …”10

Now this doesn’t mean there aren’t any records for this time period. There are some registers for births, marriages and deaths created under this law and, of course, there are still church records that may be available.

But the Maryland experience is a powerful reminder that, just because the law said something had to be done, it doesn’t mean it always was done.

Our ancestors were no better at following rules they didn’t want to follow than we are today.

Darn it…


  1. An Act, to provide for the Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths,” Archives of Maryland 530: 194-197, Session Laws, 1865, in Archives of Maryland Online ( : accessed 24 Mar 2016).
  2. For the effective date, see ibid., §13, at 530:197. For the mechanism of the statute, see ibid., §1, at 530:194.
  3. Ibid., §1, paragraph 1.
  4. Ibid., §1, paragraph 2.
  5. Ibid., §1, paragraph 3, at 530:195.
  6. Ibid., §3.
  7. Ibid., §5.
  8. Birth Records,” Guide to Government Records, Maryland State Archives ( : accessed 25 Mar 2016).
  9. Ibid., “Marriage Records.”
  10. Ibid., “Death Records.”
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