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» Vital Records
Vital Records — birth, marriage, and death records — are the basic building blocks of family history research. For many, some of these documents are available in the home and serve as a starting point when building a family tree. An important concept in genealogy is the need to 'walk backwards' or to step backwards through time in search of details about your ancestors.
Death certificates, for example contain details about an individuals death, but also include information leading you backwards to earlier records. An date of death and age at death can help establish an approximate date of birth. When used together, birth, marriage, and death records can help establish both time and place for many branches of your family tree.
Why are Vital Records of interest to researchers?
- Vital records are considered a primary source document to verify an event
(but errors are still possible, so proceed with caution)
- The closer a record was made to the date of occurrence, the greater the likelihood that the information contained in the record source will be accurate and more detailed than a record of that same event compiled years later
- Vital records often give valuable clues to other information (parents, hometown, dates, etc.) and establish direct links from one generation to the other
How can you begin to use vital records?
- Learn to step backwards through time . . .
- Do you know when a death/burial occurred?
- What’s on a headstone? (names, dates, and by default usually a location)
- What can your learn from the burial records?
- Read and re-read obituaries, funeral notices, memorial cards, etc.
- Funeral homes? Might they have other information on record? (Yes – sometimes)
- Death Certificates & Obituaries
- Marriage Certificates
- Birth Certificates
– Father of the American Vital Statistics System
Lemuel Shattuck (1793-1859), father of the American vital statistics system, was first a school-teacher and later a bookseller and publisher in Massachusetts. At the age of 46 he retired from the publishing business to begin a career of public service which resulted in many outstanding contributions to the fields of vital registration, the development of the national census, and public health.
Shattuck’s interest in public health and demographic statistics stemmed from several sources, and it probably began rather early. The deaths of four members of his immediate family from communicable diseases, which were later deemed preventable, undoubtedly had a great impact upon him. His developing interest in the embryonic field of public health was further heightened by his studies of the life tables published by an English life insurance company. They contained intriguing indications that the average length of human life had increased and that further increases were conceivable.
The final decision to devote his efforts toward the improvement of health statistics and vital registration probably came when Shattuck was constantly confronted with inadequate data about vital events while writing a history of the town of Concord, Mass. He became convinced that complete vital registration, especially that of mortality, could provide evidence of the influence of climate and environment on health and longevity.
The development of a vital statistics registration system was not easily accomplished. Despite the fact that he was a member of the Boston Common Council, Shattuck was unsuccessful in his early attempts to have a committee established to study the Boston registration system and its problems. Apathy and inertia tended to be his greatest opponents.
Perhaps the impetus to continue pressing for an adequate vital registration system came from developments in England. The British Poor-Law inquiry commission, under the leadership of its secretary, Edwin Chadwick, had demonstrated a desperate need for the information that could be obtained from a vital statistics system. This, coupled with the devastating cholera epidemic of 1831-32, led in 1836 to the enactment of a registration law creating a central register office with responsibility for the records and statistics of births, marriages, and deaths – by cause – for all of England and Wales.
When Dr. William Farr joined the Register Office in 1839, the full potential of the vital statistics being collected began to be realized. In a series of brilliant reports based upon the available statistics, Farr stimulated and guided sanitary reform and the investigation of public health problems.
Through correspondence and the receipt of publications, Shattuck was well aware of the successes being attained in vital statistics in England and Wales, and he was determined to see them duplicated in Massachusetts and eventually the entire United States. The American Statistical Association, which Shattuck was instrumental in founding in 1839, was used to induce the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Massachusetts Medical Society to petition the legislature for an effective registration law.
Finally, in 1842, using the British Act of 1836 as the prototype, Massachusetts adopted the first State registration law in the United States. After his election to the State Legislature, Shattuck was able to obtain committee recommendations for strengthening the registration system. The recommendations, which were enacted into law in 1844, required central State registration; specified the types of information to be collected, including causes of death; and lodged responsibility for each kind of record in designated officials.
Now that vital statistics would start to become available, it was necessary to have detailed census data in order to correctly interpret and analyze these statistics. Shattuck persuaded the Boston Common Council to take a census of the city. The census was planned by Shattuck and fashioned after some of the best contemporary censuses in Europe. The individual, rather than the family, was made the primary census unit. This innovation permitted the subsequent assembly of new and more revealing types of information.
As a result of the fame of the Boston Census of 1845, Shattuck was invited to Washington to help plan for the Seventh Federal Census. He wrote five of the six schedules, as well as the enumerators’ instructions, for the 1850 Federal census. It is acknowledged that many of the most important improvements in the history of the Federal census resulted form the adoption in 1850 of Shattuck’s ideas.
Nor were Shattuck’s efforts confined to vital statistics and demography. His Report of the Sanitary Commission of Massachusetts, 1850, was described by C.E.A. Winslow as “one of the most remarkable documents – perhaps the most significant single document – in the history of public health.” Shattuck anticipated nearly all the public health measures, except those based on the still unborn science of bacteriology, which were to be introduced within the next two generations. Among 50 specific recommendations was one for the creation of a State board of health whose program would be based solidly on complete registration and vital statistics.
The establishment of a vital registration system and significant advances in demography and public health involved the cooperation an efforts of many individuals. However, the leadership supplied by Lemuel Shattuck, who had the rare personal qualities of foresight and patience combined with persistence and determination, resulted in his being considered the father of the American vital statistics system.
Source: The above article appeared in the March-April 1966 issue of Nosology Guidelines, Supplement to the Cause-of-Death Coding Manual published by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
The transcription is by Daniel M. Lynch who was reviewing a collection of these early newsletters for content of potential interest to genealogists. (30 March 2006)