Several times in Pennsylvania history, local governments at the county or city level kept lists of those who died in their area. These lists are often referred to as “registers.” Few of these local registers are digitized and searchable online, so family historians rarely use them.
Birth registrations began formally in every county in PA in 1893. The doctor or mid-wife who delivered the baby initiated the registration. The registration was either a form with columns to list several births attended over one to two weeks, or a single paper to record each individual birth. Whatever form, researchers must take care to obtain the entirety of the registration information, including the back of the forms.
The Register of Wills at each county courthouse typically kept birth, death, and marriage registers. In some counties, the Orphan’s Court held these records. Both the Register of Wills and the Orphan’s Court offices are at the county courthouse. Researchers should contact these county offices directly for copies of these vital records from 1893-1905.
Registrations Prior to 1893
An attempt made in 1852 to universally register births and deaths in each county of Pennsylvania failed. Few residents complied with the rule and by 1854 the counties universally stopped registrations. Considered incomplete and not useful, counties disposed of the registers prior to the 20th Century. The few records which survive from 1852-1854 are hosted on Ancestry.
Pennsylvania’s larger cities began birth registrations for their residents prior to the 1893 county requirement. These records are rarely accessible online from home. The local historical or genealogical is a good starting place to find them. The cities and beginning year of birth registrations is below:
- Philadelphia – 1860
- Reading – 1870
- Pittsburgh – 1870
- City of Allegheny (merged into Pittsburgh) – 1878
- Scranton- 1878
- Altoona – 1886
Early birth records may or may not have included still births or miscarriages. There was no consistent completion of records for those situations. Researchers will find city residents completed infant still birth records because they needed proof of death for a burial permit.
Colonial Pennsylvania attempted to collect births, marriages, and deaths through local clerks. The Pennsylvania Archives books have the records transcribed and indexed in these volumes below:
- Pennsylvania Marriage Licenses 1784-1786 – Pennsylvania Archives, Sixth Series, Volume 6
- Pennsylvania Marriage Licenses Prior to 1790 – Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, Volume 2
- Records of Pennsylvania Marriages Prior to 1810, Volume 1 – Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, Volume 8
- Records of Pennsylvania Marriages Prior to 1810, Volume 2 – Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series Volume 9
Many internet sites host digitized copies of these volumes.
Filling in the Gaps
As you can see, there is quite a gap in Pennsylvania vital records. To fill in the gaps, researchers use church records, probate records, published biographies, military pensions, and newspapers.
This entry is part of the PA Ancestors Almanac. Follow the links at the bottom of the post to learn more about how to discover your ancestors in Pennsylvania.
Copyright ©2020, Denys Allen and PA Ancestors. All Rights Reserved.
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