With all due respect to the State of Georgia…

There are times when The Legal Genealogist just can’t manage to silence that ear worm.

You know the one I mean.

It’s the Gershwin song from Porgy and Bess with the title that’s just too appropriate sometimes for us as genealogists.

The title: “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”1

Case in point: in the list of historical events reported by the website On This Day for December 19th is this entry — “1823 Georgia passes 1st US state birth registration law in US.”2

And it’s absolutely true that, on 19 December 1823, Georgia Governor George M. Troup assented to a legislative enactment — thus making it law — that required the clerks of the Courts of Ordinary in each county to “enter and register in a book, to be kept for that purpose, the names of all persons who may report themselves to him, or who may be reported by their parents or guardians, as well as all those who may be hereafter born within the said county, and who may be reported as aforesaid, upon due proof being made by affidavit or oath to the said clerk of the said birth ; and that the said clerk shall be entitled to take and receive for each registry which he shall be called on to make, the sum of twenty-five cents.”3

And it ain’t necessarily so that it’s the first state birth registration law in the US.

Not by a long shot.

Vermont statute

First off, there were some birth records required as far back as colonial times. Just as one example, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony directed as of 1639 that “there be records kept of … the days of every marriage, birth, and death of every person within this jurisdiction.”4

And by 1642 the law there required clerks to “take especially care to record all birthes and deathes of persons in their townes …; & for time past … they shall do their utmost indeavor to find out in their severall townes who had bene borne, & who hath died, since the first founding of their townes, & to record the same…”5

So okay, I’ll grant you that the website says it’s the “first state birth registration law” — and the Massachusetts Bay Colony wasn’t a state.

Except that it still ain’t necessarily so.

On 28 February 1797, the State of Vermont passed “An Act, regulating town meetings, and the choice and duty of town officers.” And section 22 of that law read: That it shall be the duty of every town-clerk or register, to record all births, and deaths, in his respective town. And all parents and masters shall furnish the clerk of the town, to which they respectively belong, with the names of such persons as shall have been born, or shall have died, while under their charge or care, and the day of such person’s birth, or death.6

And yeah, really, Vermont was a state by then — admitted in 1791.7

Okay, I’ll grant you the Vermont law says the towns are to do it, and not the state, but then the Georgia laws says the county Courts of Ordinary are to do it, so Vermont wins by a country mile — and I haven’t ruled out the possibility that some other state passed a post-Revolutionary War statute even earlier. (Update: Michael LeClerc, CG, tells me there’s a similar towns-to-record statute in Massachusetts in 1795, and that one made it a parental duty to report the births. See the details in the comments.)

And let’s face it — the Georgia law isn’t exactly an every-birth-has-to-be-recorded law. Sure, anybody who wanted to register a birth — and could afford to pay the clerk’s fee — could get it registered. But it doesn’t require every parent or guardian to report a birth. So if you want to count people-who-want-to-can-register-a-birth laws, you have to include the laws instituting gradual emancipation in the north — because those laws required people who wanted to claim the right to the labor of free children of color born to those they held enslaved to register the births of those children.8

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m awfully glad Georgia started recording births in 1823. Whether it was a voluntary system or not, whether it included everybody or not, getting anybody’s vital statistics back that far is a pearl without price.

But it wasn’t the “first state birth registration law.”

In other words… even when we “read it on the interwebs”… “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The first to record,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 19 Dec 2019).

SOURCES

  1. See generally Wikipedia (https://www.wikipedia.com), “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” rev. 25 Sep 2019.
  2. Historical Events on December 19,” On This Day ( : accessed 19 Dec 2019).
  3. “An Act to establish an office for recording the Births of Citizens of this State, in each County of the said State,” 19 Dec 1823, in William C. Dawson, compiler, Compilation of the Laws of the State of Georgia (Milledgeville, Ga. : Grantland and Orme, 1831), 113.
  4. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, editor, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, Volume II, 1642-1649 (Boston : William White, Commonwealth Printer, 1853), 276.
  5. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, editor, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, Volume II, 1628-1641 (Boston : William White, Commonwealth Printer, 1853), 15.
  6. §22, “An Act, regulating town meetings, and the choice and duty of town officers,” 28 Feb 1797, in The Laws of the State of Vermont (Randolph, Vt. : Sereno Wright, State Printer, 1808), I: 417; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 19 Dec 2019).
  7. See “Statehood,” Vermont State Archives, Secretary of State (https://www.sec.state.vt.us/ : accessed 19 Dec 2019).
  8. See e.g. “An Act for the gradual Abolition of Slavery,” 15 February 1804, Chapter CIII in Acts of the Twenty-Eighth General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey, … Second Sitting (Trenton : Wilson & Blackwell, State Printers, 1804), 251; digital images, Rutgers Law Library (http://njlaw.rutgers.edu/collections/njleg/ : accessed 19 Dec 2019).
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