In 1610 Sir Thomas Dale enacted the first Virginia laws, which were called the Lawes Divine, Morall, and Martiall. Those laws required that ministers in Virginia during colonial times keep registers of marriages, christenings, and burials. Similar records were kept in England at the time. Unfortunately, most of the registers from colonial times are no longer extant. A 1619 law required that the Secretary of the Colony be presented with the registers. A 1642 law required that the “commander of every monethly court” be given a vital record list from each parish clerk on a monthly basis. However, very few of those lists were actually recorded as ordered.
In March of 1660 the vital records laws were strengthened by the House of Burgesses. An act was passed that stated that “every parish shall well, truly and plainly record and sett downe in a booke provided for that purpose, all marriages, deaths and births that shall happen within the precincts of the parish, and in the month of March in every yeare, the person appointed by the parish so to do, shall make true certificate into the clerke of every county to the intent the same may there remaine on record for ever.” Unfortunately, any certificates that were recorded by county clerks as a result of that law no longer exist.
Early Virginia marriages required publication of banns. The House of Burgesses stated that governors should grant marriage licenses, as of 1631. However, couples could choose to have banns read, instead, reducing their costs. Verbal or written consent was required for marriages that included anyone under 21 years old or anyone who was a servant at the time. The law also stated that marriage ceremonies could not be performed “at any unreasonable tymes but only betweene the howers of eight and twelve in the forenoone.”
As of 1661 marriage bonds were also required. Each couple had to give a bond to the county clerk before receiving their marriage license, certifying that there was no lawful reason why they should not be married. A list of licenses was forwarded from the clerk to the Secretary of the Colony each September. However, the Williamsburg, Richmond, and Jamestown fires destroyed those records.
In 1853 a new marriage law was passed. It stated that each clerk of all independent cities and counties had to keep a marriage register and issue marriage licenses. Each party that wanted to be married had to submit the following information to the clerks: Full Names, Ages, Places of Birth, Residence, Proposed Marriage Date and Place, Marital Status (Widowed or Single), Parents’ Names, Groom’s Occupation, Minister’s Name
When the marriage ceremony was complete, it was up to the minister to send a record of the marriage to the appropriate clerk. The clerk then recorded the event in the marriage register for that county or city. Several Virginia county courthouses still have those records on file.
Most marriage records from before 1853 have been published in various places. Large collections of those published records can be found at the Salt Lake City Family History Library (FHL) and at the Library of Virginia. Many genealogical libraries across the state and the country also have similar collections on file.
Aside from New England states, Virginia was one of the earliest to require death and birth recording. From 1853 to 1896 registrations were recorded on the county level. However, the Civil War caused many counties to stop keeping records for a time. So, only a few deaths and births were recorded while the war was going on. For the most part, records were not properly recorded from 1896 to June 14, 1912. At that time, vital records began being recorded on a statewide level. The FHL and the Library of Virginia have the following records on file: Early Birth Records and Indexes (1853 to 1896), Marriage Records (1853 to 1935), Death Records (1853 to 1896)
Marriage indexes from 1853 to 1935 can also be found on microfilm at the Library of Virginia. An online searchable death index for 1853 to 1935 is currently being compiled. Many marriage, birth, and death records and locations of records can also be found online.
The Virginia Department of Health will not respond to genealogical vital record requests because of lack of resources. Only immediate family members can obtain copies of those records. It takes 4 to 6 weeks to obtain a copy of a record, which can be obtained from the Office of Vital Records. The forms for sending record requests can be found online. Some marriage, divorce, birth, and death records can be obtained within 5 days, thanks to a partnership between VitalChek Network and the Virginia Health Department.
The Division of Vital Records can supply divorce records from January 1, 1853 onward. The Virginia General Assembly or the circuit clerk court can supply earlier records.
Many Virginia Bible records, which contain vital information, can be found at the Library of Virginia.