Vital Records of North Carolina
~ Birth, Adoption, Marriage, Cohabitation, Divorce, & Death ~


"The founders of North Carolina envisioned a well-regulated society in which all marriages were celebrated by priests of the Church of England and every marriage, birth, and death was publicly registered. However, the general unavailability of Anglican clergy in the province led to the toleration of other forms of marriage, while the rural nature of the colony and independent character of its citizens made registration of marriages and vital statistics impractical; evasion of the law was commonplace. Thus, despite well-intentioned provisions of the 1699 Fundamental Constitutions and a 1715 law instructing county officials to register 'Births, Burials & Marriages ... till there be a Clerk of the Parish Church,' public record of marriages in North Carolina generally begins in 1742 and of births and deaths in 1913."
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page 151, Raymond A. Winslow, Jr.'s chapter on Marriages, Divorce, and Vital Records, North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, Second Edition; edited by Helen F. M. Leary, C.G., F.A.S.G.


BIRTH RECORDS

Except for some counties in the eastern part of the state, North Carolina did not start to use birth certificates before 1913, so anything prior to that time will have to come from other sources. Certainly, church records are one of the first places to look. Quakers kept detailed vital records, and, as long as those survive, they are worth their weight in gold. Other denominations may not have kept records that detailed, or those records may not survive.

Of course, census records can give the researcher a range for a birth date. Cemetery tombstones, if they survive and are legible, can also be a good source; but one needs to remember that errors are possible on these. And death certificates can be wrong about the date and place of birth, and even the parents' names. So it is wise to use multiple sources to confirm the information from any one source.

Also, another source of birth records are the bastardy bonds.  How many of these survive, and for which time periods, varies from county to county.  There are some published abstracts available for many counties.

Bastardy bonds were a means of holding the father of the child responsible for the child's support, preventing the county from becoming responsible for the cost of supporting the child and its mother. Sometimes court records will reflect the existence at one time of a bastardy bond, when the bond itself does not survive, since the mother and father were brought to court as part of the process. The bastardy bonds are not available on microfilm. They are kept in the North Carolina State Archives.

A "delayed birth certificate" could be issued in NC counties after 1913, for individuals born before 1913, to comply with Social Security regulations, or passport or other documentation requirements. An applicant would have to provide proof of birth date and/or age, birth place, and parents, using sources that included family Bibles, school records, military records, voter records, insurance policies, and affidavits from family and neighbors.

There were two registers of the certificates kept from 1913 until 1960 (one at county level and one at state level). After 1960, only the state register was required. There are restrictions as to what is available, under the right-to-privacy laws. The mailing address for North Carolina Vital Records is 1903 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC, 27699-1903. They require specific information first, and the payment of a fee, so please check this webpage:

North Carolina Vital Records: Genealogical Research

ADOPTION RECORDS

These are often filed with "Miscellaneous Records." "In the past, adoptions were often made informally, without process of law, without record, and even without the knowledge of any but a few persons directly concerned. Most adoption records are kept in the office of clerks of superior court, although some are held by the county directors of social services. They may be included in, and indexed under, Special Proceedings. Modern adoption records are not open to public use. However, older volumes called Record of Adoptions are generally available to the researcher. They contain petitions, court orders, and letters of adoption, showing the names of the persons seeking to adopt, the child's name and any proposed change of name, the child's custodian, the date, and the name of the superior court clerk."
p. 171, Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., "Marriage, Divorce, and Vital Records," in North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local Records, edited by Helen F. M. Leary, C.G., F.A.S.G.; p. 151-55.


MARRIAGE RECORDS

In the state of North Carolina, marriage licenses were not a requirement of every marriage until 1868. Before that time, several different records may -- or may not -- have been created, or kept.

Marriage bonds, in use from 1741 to 1868, are often misinterpreted as certain proof that a marriage actually took place.  You may see statements using the date of the marriage bond in this fashion: "Mary Jones and John Smith married on 1 January 1810." That is inaccurate and potentially misleading.  The date of the bond is nothing more than that: the date the marriage bond was taken out. The wedding could have taken place that day, the next day, days later, or even weeks later -- or not at all! A bond is not absolute proof that the marriage occurred. It must be corroborated by other evidence. Think of it as being similar to an engagement announcement. One of the parties could have changed his or her mind before the actual event.  The careful researcher must look for confirming proof from other sources, such as church records, newspaper announcements, wills and estates, or land records.  Some marriage bonds don't even name the bride.  A marriage bond is just one piece of a puzzle that needs to be assembled.

Remember that the date of the bond is not necessarily the date of the marriage. It would be better to say "on or after 1 January 1810" or "about 1 January 1810" or something similar.  Follow best practice, and assemble as much information as possible from as many sources as possible. Cite your sources and state your reasoning and conclusions.

From 1699 to 1741, a marriage had to take place in the Anglican church, or in front of the Governor or one of the members of his Council, to be counted as a lawful marriage. Obviously, this presented difficulties to people of other denominations and to those living in areas away from the Governor and his Council, who conducted their sessions in Wilmington or New Bern or Edenton - all locations on the eastern coast.

In April 1741, "An Act Concerning Marriages" was passed, which extended the right to perform marriages to the county justices. But the justice had to have the permission of the minister living in his parish -- if he had one in the area.

Following the evolving practices about marriage through the decades is a complex business, so I will quote from a book that any serious NC researcher should have on his or her shelf. It is available through the North Carolina Genealogical Society website. Quoted from what is commonly called "the bible of NC research":

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"Before a couple could be married by either a minister or a magistrate they had to obtain a license or publish the banns. Licenses were to be issued by the clerk of the county court in the county where the prospective bride resided, but only after the intended groom had posted a bond in the sum of fifty pounds, payable to the King, bearing the condition ' that there is no lawful Cause to obstruct the Marriage for which the License shall be desired...' Consent of parents or guardians was required if either party was under the age of twenty-one and not a widow or widower (a provision rarely, if ever, enforced). Servants could not marry without permission of their masters and mixed-race marriages were prohibited altogether. After posting the bond and receiving the license, the betrothed pair sought out a minister or magistrate to unite them in marriage. Those not wishing to bother with bonds and licenses could publish the banns. The procedure is described in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England:

First the Banns of all that are to be married together must be published in the Church three several Sundays, during the time of Morning Service, or of Evening Service (if there be no Morning Service), immediately after the second Lesson: the Curate saying after the accustomed manner,
I Publish the Banns of Marriage between N. of ______ and N. of ______. If any of you know cause, or just impediment, why these two persons should not be joined together in holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first/second, or third/ time of asking.

"If no objection was voiced after the third publication, the parish minister, clerk, or reader issued a certificate stating the banns had been published. With this certificate in hand, the couple could be married by a clergyman or a magistrate.

"The 1741 law, too, was often ignored. Complaining that 'Presbyterian, or Dissenting Clergy, ... have joined Many Persons together in Holy Matrimony, without either License or Publication; whereby ... the Validity of Marriages may be endangered,' the General Assembly passed a law in 1766 validating marriages solemnized by dissenting and Presbyterian clergy before 1 January 1767. Presbyterian ministers, but not those of other denominations, could thereafter perform marriages on the same basis as magistrates."
[The exception for Presbyterian ministers probably was due to the large number of Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers in the state, which was due in large part to the recruitment efforts of Gabriel Johnston, who was royal governor of North Carolina from 1734-1752; he was born in the Scottish Lowlands.]

"Legislation in 1770 stiffened an earlier requirement that all marriage licenses be signed by the governor. Soon thereafter, the independent state of North Carolina, by ordinance in 1776 and law in 1778, empowered every regular minister of the gospel of every denomination who had the cure of souls (a pastoral appointment in a congregation) to celebrate matrimony. Justices retained their rights as before, but the penal sum of bonds was increased to five hundred pounds. Further, the law of 1778 decreed 'the People called Quakers shall retain their former Rules and Privileges in solemnizing the Rites of Matrimony in their own Church....'

"Benjamin Swaim's The North-Carolina Justice..., a summary of laws in effect in 1839, touched many interesting points (pp. 312-315):

All regular Ministers of the Gospel of every denomination, having the cure of souls, and all Justices of the Peace of this State, are ... authorized and empowered to solemnize the rites of matrimony, according to the rites and ceremonies of their respective churches, and agreeable to the rules [of the law] .... The Clerk of the County Court where the woman resides, on application, is to grant license, first taking bond and security.

The publication of bans [sic] must be made three Sundays during divine service or immediately after, by a Minister or reader duly qualified; who is to give a certificate of publication when required.... Quakers are to retain their own peculiar rites and ceremonies as to marriage.

No white person is permitted to marry an Indian, negro, mustee or mulatto, or any person of mixed blood, to the third generation.

All the personal property that the wife has in possession at the time of the marriage is vested absolutely in the husband; and he is liable for all her debts, whether her property be sufficient to pay them or not.

The age of discretion is fixed at fourteen years old in males, and twelve in females. If they marry younger they may disagree to the marriage when they arrive at these respective ages, and it therefore becomes void to all intents and purposes. Or if one party only be under the age of consent, and the other of full age, the party of full age is bound and the infant not. Relations of the third degree, whether by consanguinity or affinity, may lawfully marry, but not nearer than the third degree, counting, not from, but through the common ancestor, so that first cousins may lawfully marry, although the father and the mother of each party were reciprocally the brother and the sister of the parents of the other party.

"An untold number of the marriages, however, failed to comply with the letter of the law, even though they were morally valid and generally accepted as legitimate. People followed their own customs, marrying as they pleased, when and where they pleased, aided or at least unhindered by ministers and magistrates who were undaunted by the law's prescribed penalties. Normally, such marriages were not matters of public record.

"In all the procedure of filing marriage bonds, granting marriage licenses, publishing banns, and issuing certificates of banns, only the marriage bond was a public record; only the marriage bond was required to be preserved. The bonding system was in effect from 1741 to 1868, when the use of bonds was discontinued. Marriage bonds were originally filed with the clerk of the county court. When that office as abolished, also in 1868, they were transferred to the care of the register of deeds in each county. Half a century ago nearly all bonds were placed in the State Archives, where they remain, arranged by county and then alphabetically by grooms' names. Although each move possibly overlooked a few bonds, so that stray ones do turn up in courthouses occasionally, the researcher should expect all surviving bonds to be in the Archives."

Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., "Marriage, Divorce, and Vital Records," in North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local Records, edited by Helen F. M. Leary, C.G., F.A.S.G.; p. 151-55.

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A researcher can go to the Search Room at the NC State Archives, and look the bond up in the index, and then give the attendant a call slip. You can pay to have a photocopy made, or you can use a digital camera without flash to take a digital image of the bond. If you are unable to travel to Raleigh, you can hire a researcher to find the bond and obtain the desired copy or image, or you can order a photocopy to be sent to you by mail. NC residents can use the online order form to request a copy; out-of-state residents have to pay a research fee and send their order by mail. The marriage bonds have been microfilmed, and the Archives compiled an index in 1978. However, that index will not show any accessions since that time. The most up-to-date information will be available through the North Carolina State Archives MARS finding aid:

North Carolina State Archives


Marriage licenses from 1868 to 1930 have been microfilmed. The originals are kept at the Register of Deeds in the appropriate county. The bottom portion gives the date and place of the marriage. Back to Raymond Winslow's excellent chapter:

"Although marriage licenses have been issued in North Carolina for nearly two and a half centuries, hardly any were preserved until 1851. A law ratified that year required all justices and ministers performing marriages to return the licenses to the county-court clerk who had issued them, along with certificates showing that the rites of matrimony had been solemnized. An act of 1868 transferred the power to issue marriage licenses to the registers of deeds and made the license the only public record of marriages. Such it has continued to be to the present. A more extensive law passed in 1872 tightened the state's marriage regulations, providing that no marriage could be performed without a license signed by the register in the county where it was intended the marriage should take place. This law also fixed the marriageable age for males at sixteen and females at fourteen and required parental consent for parties under eighteen. Today the marriageable age is eighteen for both sexes, although persons between sixteen and eighteen can marry with consent, and unwed mothers between twelve and eighteen can marry putative fathers."

Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., "Marriage, Divorce, and Vital Records," in North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local Records, edited by Helen F. M. Leary, C.G., F.A.S.G.; p. 158.


COHABITATION RECORDS

"The abolition of slavery raised the question of the freedmen's marriages. In 1866 the General Assembly passed 'An Act Concerning Negroes and Persons of Color or of Mixed Blood.' Those persons who wished to register their pre-emancipation marriages were required to appear before the clerk of the county court or a justice of the peace to acknowledge their marital status. These acknowledgments were to be recorded and regarded as proof that a marriage had, indeed, existed."

Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., "Marriage, Divorce, and Vital Records," in North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local Records, edited by Helen F. M. Leary, C.G., F.A.S.G.; p. 161.


DIVORCE RECORDS

"The English legal requirements for absolute divorce (granted only by Parliament after separation for cause had been granted by an ecclesiastical court) precluded absolute divorce in eighteenth-century North Carolina, which had no church courts. Religious and social attitudes towards marriage (and related property rights) made divorce in the nineteenth century rare, although it was legally possible. Through both centuries, however, desertion was a common cause for legal separation. It was often cited in women's petitions for release from restrictions on their right to own or control separate property. Desertion of the marital relationships was not limited to men, however -- an 1819 newspaper offered special rates for inserting notices about 'Eloped Wives or discarded Husbands.'

"Prior to the Revolution, what few separations were granted were in the form of orders of the General Court for separate maintenance, often called alimony. After the Revolution, the legal power to dissolve and suspend marriages was restricted to the General Assembly, which did not exercise it often. From 1814 to 1835 this authority was shared with the superior courts of the several counties, but in actual fact, the legislature was granting very few divorces by the 1820s. Since 1835, superior courts have had sole jurisdiction...."
pages 164-165, Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., "Marriage, Divorce, and Vital Records," in North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local Records, edited by Helen F. M. Leary, C.G., F.A.S.G.; p. 158.


DEATH RECORDS

Prior to 1913, for the most part, information on deaths will have to be obtained from family Bible records, census records, newspaper records, church records, wills and estates (usually yielding a date range only), and other types of records. There are some death certificates at the State Archives in Raleigh which date back to as early as 1907, according to reports from researchers.

Death certificates were required as of 1913, and there were two registers of the certificates from then until 1960 (one at county level and one at state level). After 1960, only the state register was required. There are restrictions as to what is available, under the right-to-privacy laws. The mailing address for North Carolina Vital Records is 1903 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC, 27699-1903. They require specific information first, and the payment of a fee, so please check this webpage:

North Carolina Vital Records: Genealogical Research

Older death certificates are held at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, and are open to viewing.

North Carolina State Archives

It is wise to remember that the informant for the death certificate may have given wrong information for remote events or other details, whether due to grief, confusion or distraction, or simply not knowing and/or guessing at the answer. Verify the information with every other type of record that you can find, and weigh the evidence, cite your sources, and note your reasoning and conclusions.



This information made available above is strictly for private use and is not for republication in any form.

The publisher of the book cited owns the copyright to the material.


North Carolina State Library page on substitute record sources for vital records


 

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