Origin and Early History of Record Keeping in the State

So much by way of introduction: Kentucky shared the institutions and followed the customs of the parent State, Virginia, up to the hour of independent statehood. In this business of keeping track of recorded vital statistics, it seems that in the earlier day the existence, influence, and power of the Anglican Church were predominant. To it were attached privileges and prerogatives. It was part of what was meant by loyalty. Vestries and wardens had a place in government as well as in the church. As registrar, the warden was custodian of entries on the books of the parish; covering deaths, births, or baptisms and marriages in which the rector was officiant. Such marriages took place before witnesses, after due notice given and the publication of banns. Nothing could be more a matter of public participation. However, not everyone belonged to the Established Church. So crippling were fees and penalties that one is tempted to believe many such unions must have been solemnized surreptitiously and without other records than the family Bible and the signature of the officiating minister.

With the Declaration of Independence, something was done for the pursuit of happiness. Vestries remained, shorn, to be sure of privileges, and the marriage standing of all white people was equalized. The county clerk now was given responsibility for keeping records, and for the most part did so with the barest attention to detail, frequently listing both family and given names and sometimes stating the age. The misspelling of names has occasionally led to confusion. Uniformity did not exist.

Events Leading to Present System of Recording Vital Statistics

In successive Bulletins of the Department of Health from October 1938 through January 1939, J. F. Blackerby, Director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, directs attention to the fact that from the day of the first settlement at Jamestown, Americans took more interest in the pedigrees of every sort of livestock than of human beings. They were more concerned with pigs than with people. Such romantic phrases as “First Families of Virginia” had a social rather than a statistical significance; and questions of genealogy would require less research if records had been carefully kept by the proper agencies. Not until the middle of the last century did Washington begin to get busy in the matter of recording properly vital statistics of the nation.

The science of statistics is traced by some historians all the way back to the mid-sixteenth century. Norway and Sweden, pioneers in many fields of inquiry, sought information as to population trends. The lead was not widely followed and in this country, entries of death, birth, and marriage records remained haphazard and unreliable for many years. Not before the Seventh Decennial Census in 1850 was a serious effort made toward a scientific approach to the problem. Medical men and lawyers had been active in promoting the idea and stressing a need that should have been sufficiently evident. Now they had official backing. Reports shortly were to be annual, instead of decennial. However, results from 1850 to 1900 were meager, fragmentary, and inadequate. Funds were grudged and the personnel was inexpert. There was a public to be educated and a general apathy to be overcome.

Kentucky sought to keep abreast of the movement. At the instance of Dr. W. N. Button of Georgetown, first President of the State Medical Association, the General Assembly in 1852 passed a law requiring surgeons, physicians, and midwives to keep a registry of all births and deaths at which they had professionally attended, and submit the records or copies thereof to the clerk of the county annually. County tax assessors also were directed to submit with their tax lists a record of all births and deaths occurring in their respective counties. Their ultimate destination was the Auditor of Public Accounts, whose duty it would be to have the statistics tabulated and 500 copies printed; sending to each county clerk for reference and safe keeping not more than five nor less than two copies. All this was to be completed before the first of the next January and a modest fee might be charged by the various agents involved. So elaborate a structure called for cooperation as well as intelligence. Because it was troublesome or the reward insufficient, only the poorest results were obtained.

When the Civil War brought dislocation of much official life, this later development was neglected and fell into disuse. There was, for all practical purposes, an interval of fifty years before the condition of Kentucky’s records was recognized and some remedy sought. Not before 1910, however, was a genuine attempt made to better things. The registration law of that year provided for registration of births and deaths and the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the State Department of Health started operation January 1, 1911.

These years of neglect, nevertheless, were not a complete blank. Some counties did preserve records; others allowed them to accumulate and, when the State Board of Health began to get active in 1960, these records were boxed and shipped to the headquarters of the board, then located in Bowling Green.

Mr. Blackerby further points out that in 1930, the Federal government, through the Division of Vital Statistics in the Census Bureau, set up what is now known as the United States Registration Area. This area was to include all States which then had or subsequently enacted satisfactory laws governing the registration of births and deaths, and which would agree to furnish to the United States Census Bureau transcripts of all birth and death certificates recorded within their several jurisdictions. The qualification test for admission into the registration area was the possession by the State of a Vital Statistics law, patterned after a “Model Law” drafted by a committee representing various professional and business groups, and the submission of evidence that administration of such a law had served to secure the registration of not less than 90 percent of births and deaths occurring in the State. By 1911, twenty-two States, representing 63.1 percent of the country’s total population and 37.2 percent of its geographical area had been admitted. The Kentucky General Assembly of 1910 enacted a Vital Statistics law and the State Board of Health soon thereafter established a Bureau of Vital Statistics as provided in that act. As a result, Kentucky was admitted into the registration area for deaths January 1, 1911. It was not until 1918, however, that Kentucky was admitted into the registration area for births, the delay being chiefly due to the fact that so many States were clamoring for admission, and the Census Bureau did not have the time, facilities, or personnel necessary to conduct the test required to determine the State’s qualification for entrance. Medical men had discovered the relation between vital statistics and public health. They were much concerned with the causes as well as the number of deaths in given communities. Kentucky had suffered severely and repeatedly from epidemics where a disposition to “cover up” clouded sources of information. Not until a shotgun quarantine was in force would many centers of population admit the prevalence of the scourge. Hygiene and sanitation problems thereby were rendered more difficult, and downright unwillingness to take preventative action paralyzed effort. All this and much more had been in the mind of Dr. Sutton and prompted the law of 1852. The neglect which fell upon it is revealing as to public apathy, to say nothing of public prejudice.

In 1920 the State Historical Society began collecting remnants of birth and death records originating under the Sutton Law and was thus able to preserve the story of some years. Other institutions, libraries, and clubs, from time to time, have made gestures in that direction with results which, at best, must be denoted unsatisfactory. It is a great opportunity lost; vast sources of information, invaluable alike for family history and for that of the Commonwealth, gone beyond all hope of recovery.

Kentucky’s registration law has been amended only twice, each time in matters of detail of an administrative character not affecting the general tenor. It conforms to the model prevailing throughout the States and Territories in the United States area, the uniformity of which greatly assists and advances research and information, linking up, as it does, various units in this most necessary and important branch of government control. However, the immediate first duty rests upon faithful records by the physicians, midwives, or other attending a birth and upon medical men, nurses, or just plain witnesses where deaths must be reported. In these cases the undertaker has a responsibility all his own and provision is made for such cases as fall under the jurisdiction of the coroner. Equally accountable for the completeness and accuracy of the vital statistics records is the county clerk, as previously indicated.

The Director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics is State Registrar of births and deaths by virtue of his office and to him all returns are made. The first to hold the office was the late Dr. W. L. Heizer, who started the system still in force with very little modification. Upon his resignation, he was succeeded by Dr. P. E. Blackerby, assistant state commissioner of health, who served until 1921, when the incumbent (1942), J. F.

Location and Accessibility of Records

The most complete and accessible vital statistics records in the communities of Kentucky are the marriage records. These always have been kept as a separate records series, and although their form and substance have changed from the old marriage registers, for the most part showing only the names of the parties and the dates of marriage, to the present system of licenses, registers, bonds, and indexes, they will be found in most instances covering the entire history of the county, unless they have been lost through some such circumstance as fire or flood.

Divorce records have been kept in a different records series. Such cases always have been within the exclusive jurisdiction of the circuit court, and the papers pertaining to these cases have been filed along with and among the papers of the other cases tried by that court. The divorce decrees will be found throughout the civil orders of that court, and although it has long been the law that a general cross-index be kept of those papers, such an index will usually show only the style and not the character of the case.

Necessity and Importance of the Records

If it should be asked how statistical records enter into the daily life of the community, in what directions they affect the citizen, we may conclude by way of summary that, first, birth records are indispensable to establish identity, parentage, property rights, legitimacy, and, among other things, liability to selective service. Claims to old-age pensions, benefits from workers’ compensation, pensions of every character, may depend upon them. They are required by many schools and by the Army and Navy, and for issuance of passports. To hold public office or to enter the professions, they must be available. Minors cannot establish their rights nor can many legal complications be satisfactorily and fairly adjusted without them.

Death records, setting forth cause of death on unimpeachable authority, are a necessity of the medical background of the land. The numerical relation of births to deaths, the prevalence of contagious diseases, and the health chart of the nation are not otherwise to be ascertained. Life insurance companies depend upon them for payment of death claims and in the matter of compiling mortality tables and the calculation of life expectancy. Without them, no clear picture of the national health would be possible. Such considerations could be prolonged indefinitely. If we do not enlarge on the place the marriage license holds, it is because it does not need emphasizing.

There will be found in the form of appendices, transcripts of Kentucky legislation relating to vital statistics, certificates of births and deaths, marriage licenses, from which the story can at once be read and illustrated. Further to expand and break down the information they contain, certain tables are offered for study. It is hoped that, with these adjuncts, the progress and place of the Commonwealth, in a branch of governmental survey and control daily gaining in significance, may have been made clear. Those tables offer a pictorial survey of conditions prevailing from the earliest day to the present. Their comparative value is high. Reference is made easy, legislation goes forward, so to speak, under the eye. Even the specialist may profit.


Kentucky Historical Records Survey, Service Division, Work Projects Administration, Guide to public vital statistics records in Kentucky, Louisville, Kentucky : Historical Records Survey, 1942.

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