The most commonly sought after records in genealogy research are the vitals- Birth, Marriage, Divorce and Death. This page is the history of the requirements and procedures for recording these documents in California at the county and state level from 1851- 1919.  Although most counties did not fully comply with statutes and code until about the 1905-06 date, many early vital events were recorded.  Some counties have kept fairly complete records since 1872. Siskiyou had started recording marriages as early as 1853.  Divorces dating back to 1859 have been recorded in Butte, and their Marriage Register begins in 1851 .  This does not mean that the register is complete.  The records of each county should be examined individually, as the actual county recording of vital events, even though the statutes were in place,  will vary from county to county.   I have been told that Alpine County  has retained almost all of their historical records since its formation in 1864.

A complete inventory of all records found in each California County Archives  was made during the years 1916-18.  The inventory, county by county, is published in : Guide To The County Archives of California, published 1919, California Historical Survey Commission, Owen C. Coy, Ph.D., Director and Archivist
the following  text (pages 66-69) is  from _Guide to the County Archives of California_  published 1919, and covers the requirements and statutes governing the filing of these vital events - at the county and state level, from 1850-1919.


The records of vital statistics, not withstanding their great importance, were during the earlier years very poorly kept. As early as 1851 the statutes required that the recorder keep a record of marriage certificates and contracts, but is was not until the act of April 26, 1858, that any attempt was made to keep a record of any other vital statistics.¹  This act provided for the registration of marriages, births, divorces and deaths.  For this purpose the office of state registrar was created, it being provided that:

     "He shall  prepare and furnish to the county recorders of each county suitable blanks and books, prepared according to the following forms:

For MARRIAGES-Entries of the date, locality, name, surname, residence, and age of the respective parties, the place of the nativity of the same, when the records was made, together with the name, place of residence, and official station of the person performing the marriage ceremony.

For BIRTHS: Entries of the date, and locality of the same, the name, sex and color of the child, the names, nativity, color and residence of the parents, and the date of the record.

For DIVORCES:Entries of the date of the divorce, Christian and surnames, and residence of the parties,obtaining the same, title of the court granting the divorce, and the name of the party making the application, the grounds upon which the divorce was granted, and the date when the record was made.

For DEATHS:Entries of the date, and name, sex, age, color, single or married, occupation, nativity, disease, or cause of death, place of interment, and the date when the record was made."

The recorder was required to enter every record of marriage, birth, divorce or death, according to instructions received from the sate registrar.    A duplicate of the records was required to be sent to the state registrar.  In order that the records might be turned in to the recorders it was made the duty of every person performing a marriage ceremony to report it to the recorder. In similar manner physicians, parents, and keepers of institutions were require to report births; persons obtaining a divorce were to report the act; and the sexton or other person having charge of burials were to furnish the information for the death records.  It also provided that persons entering the record of each of these matters should pay the recorder a fee of fifty cents; while failure to report the fact laid the guilty person liable to a fine of not less than ten nor more than one hundred dollars. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the explicit provisions of the act and the penalties imposed upon persons neglecting to report, the law seems not to have been taken as seriously as its importance demanded.  In most cases the records show the statistics for the years 1858, 1859 and probably 1860, but after that date few entries appear."

At the time of the adoption of the Political Code in 1872 the secretary of the state board of health recommended a simpler law on the subject of vital statistics.  All person performing marriage ceremonies, assisting at births, or in attendance upon deceased persons, funerals or inquests, were required to keep a register showing certain specified facts regarding the case.  The marriage certificates were to be recorded within thirty days after the marriage, and in the case of births or deaths the entries were to be reported to the recorder at the end of each quarter.  In the case of births and deaths a fee of twenty-five cents a name was imposed, the money to be paid primarily by the parents or the person next of kin.  If no fee was paid the fact was to be reported anyway and the money paid by the supervisors of the county.  Neglect to report theses statistics made the party subject to a fine of fifty dollars.  The recorder was to record the facts regarding births and deaths in  separate registers known as "Register of Births; and Register of Deaths".  As the result of this legislation many of the local officials once again were aroused to action; in some cases this resulted in continuous records, but in the majority of counties they were again neglected after a few years.²

Amendments ot the Political Code passed in 1905 called for more strict attention to the matter of vital statistics and as the result the  records from that date seem to be practically complete.  By this act, approved March 18, 1905, all persons performing marriage ceremonies were required to file with the recorder within three days after the marriage, a certificate of registry of the marriage in which has to be stated, among other things, the date of the marriage; the sex, age, race, color, birthplace and residence of each of the parties; the number of the marriage; the occupation of the parties; the maiden name of the woman if previously married; the names and birthplace of the parents o each and the maiden name of the mother of each. This data should be incorporated by the recorder  in his Register of Marriage, the original certificate being then sent to the state registrar.

In a similar manner physicians or others in attendance at the birth of a child were required within five days to return to the recorder, or if n incorporated cities to the health officer as registrar, a certificate of birth showing the time and place of birth; the name, sex, race and color o the child; the occupation and residence of the parents, with the maiden name of the mother; and whether or not the child was born in wedlock.  This was to be entered in the Register of Births, after which the original certificate was to be sent to the state registrar.3

By the amendments to  the codes passed in 1907, it was provided that the recorder should make a complete and accurate copy of each certificate registered by him upon a form identical with the original certificate, to be filed and permanently preserved in his office as the local record of such marriage or birth.4

More definite rules for the registration of DEATHS  were adopted in a statute approved March 18, 1905.5 This act gave to the State Bureau of Vital Statistics the general supervision of the records of death.  In that they were to be assisted by  local registrars, the city clerk or recorder in incorporated cities and towns, and the county recorder in the district lying outside of the incorporated municipalities.  No BURIAL PERMIT(see more at the end of the page) was to be issued until after the return of a satisfactory certificate of death.  This certificate must be of standard form recommended by the United States census office and the American Public Health Association and must contain information as to the exact time and place of death; the name, sex, race and color of the deceased; whether married, single or widowed; date and place of birth; name and birthplace of the father; maiden name and birthplace of the mother; and the occupation of the deceased.  Other items regarding the cause of death, place of burial, etc.., are to be supplied by the physician and undertaker.  The local registrar is required to make a complete and accurate copy of each certificate upon a form identical with the original certificate, this copy to be filed in his office as the local record of such death.  The original certificate is then sent on to the state office.  In 1907 further amendments were made in regard to the registration of deaths, but none of these affected the method or form of the records as above described.6

Although during the earlier years the records regarding marriages, births and deaths were very poorly kept, the survey of the county archives shows that since 1905 these various records have been kept in excellent shape in nearly all of the counties of the state and for the student of sociological questions should furnish invaluable information.

BURIAL PERMITS:   In 1889 a provision was inserted in the Political Code, requiring that burial permits be filed with the recorder.7  This was repealed in 1905 8 , but in 1913 a section relating to burial permits was again added to the code, and among its provisions is one requiring superintendents of cemeteries, boards of health and health officers to report weekly to the recorder the names of all persons interred during the preceding week. In one county (Stanislaus) the recorder, taking cognizance of the new provision in 1889, added to the archives of his office a volume for recording burial permits, and this record has been kept up to date( 1919) .  In no other county has a separate record been kept of these permits.

¹ Stats. 1851:200; 1858:342-344
² Pol. Code (1872), § § 3074-3082
3 Stats.: 1905: 104-105
4 Stats.  1907:114; Pol. Code (1915), § 3078
5 Stats. 1905 :115-112
6 Stats. 1907: 296; Pol. Code (1915), §2984
7 Stats. 1889:37
8 Stats. 1905:107
9 Stats. 1913:106; Pol. Code (1915), §3084c

2001-2004, Carolyn Feroben