Background of Tennessee Vital Records
Deaths and births were recorded on a statewide level several times, but not consistently until 1908. Even then, some areas didn’t comply. A new law was created in 1914. That law required that marriages, deaths, and births all be registered with the state. However, it took until 1920 for full compliance to take place. The Tennessee Office of Vital Records can supply divorce and marriage records for the last 50 years, as well as birth records for the last century. The Tennessee State Library and Archives holds many of the earlier records, although some are still located in county offices.
Some counties started recording deaths and births as early as 1881. A few county records even go back earlier than that. The county courthouses hold those records still, although the Salt Lake City Family History Library (FHL) and the Tennessee State Library and Archives each have some records available on microfilm.
The Division of Vital Records in Nashville has the birth records for Chattanooga from January 1882, Nashville from June 1881, and Knoxville from July 1881 on file. However, the records are not complete. Records are also available for Memphis from April 1, 1874 to December of 1887, as well as from November 1, 1898 to January 1, 1914. They can be found at the Health Department, Division of Vital Statistics for Memphis-Shelby County.
Early Nashville death records go back to July 1874, but they were not consistently recorded. The same goes for records from Knoxville (going back to July 1, 1887) and records for Chattanooga (going back to March 6, 1872. The Nashville Vital Records Office has all of those records on file. There are also some death records available for Memphis. They go back to May 1, 1848. They can be found at the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department in their Shelby County Archives.
A death register that spans 1908 to 1912 can be found at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. However, it does not include names of parents. They TSLA website can also supply a partial index of those records. A Nashville newspaper death notice index is also available.
Before Tennessee became a state, marriages were recorded on the county level as far back as 1778. Some, such as the Green County records, go back even longer than that. Some Green County records go back to 1780. Other county records go back to the following years: Washington (1787), Hawkins (1789), Carter (1790), Jefferson and Knox (1792), Blount (1795)
It took until 1815 for a state law to be passed that required marriages to be registered. In 1838 a new law stated that they needed to be recorded in “wellbound books.” From 1839 to 1919 it was common to record both marriage bonds and licenses. Marriage records from the 1880s onward included extra information. That information included groom and bride names, marriage and licenses dates, birthplaces, ages, residences, occupation of the groom, and more.
The Tennessee State Library and Archives has most of the early Tennessee marriage records on file. They are organized according to county. TSLA and the FHL each have many county records available on microfilm. Some can be accessed through inter-library loan., , Several early marriage records from the state were coped by the Works Project Administration (WPA). Those can be found at the FHL, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, certain county offices, and in Ft. Wayne, Indiana at the Allen County Public Library.
Record transcripts are not always accurate. So, researchers should view the original records whenever possible. The Tennessee State Library and Archives has both microfilmed copies of transcripts and indexes to marriage notices from Nashville newspapers on file, along with other indexes of Tennessee marriage records.
The General assembly alone granted divorces before 1834. The legislative papers hold those records. Courts were authorized to grant divorces by the 1834 state constitution. Each county’s circuit court offices generally contain those records. However, the Tennessee Office of Vital Records holds the records from the last 50 years.