I know that in more recent times almost every birth, death and marriage was documented and extensive information was often recorded, but when did this become common?

For relatively recent genealogy, 1850+, there are often really good records online, but as you get into the 1700s the records become harder to find. Does anyone know when the government or churches really started officially recording births, marriages, and deaths? At what date am I usually going to be looking for something that is not existent?

I am working primarily in Harford County Maryland if that helps.

  • @PolyGeo Why did you edit this post? Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 20:54
  • 1
    On Stack Exchange sites editing each other's questions and answers is commonplace, and done for various reasons - see genealogy.stackexchange.com/help/editing In this instance I removed a very generic tag of records and replaced it with maryland to help focus your question and prevent it from being closed as too broad.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 21:54
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    Churches generally don't record births and deaths -- they record baptisms and burials.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 2:25

2 Answers 2


The first requirement by the Catholic church to keep records in written format was in the Trentine Council. To be exact it was in this council's XXIV session on November 11, 1563:

The parish priest shall have a book in which he shall record the names of the persons united in marriage and of the witnesses, and also the day on which and the place where the marriage was contracted, and this book he shall carefully preserve.

As a rule, in churches with well preserved records, you could expect to go to 1563, but it's also possible to have earlier records, as the Trentine Council only formalized what was becoming normal practice in more 'advanced circles'.

Unfortunately, churches, books and fires seem to have an affinity. Especially in times of war.


When churches and governments (which usually started later) started keeping records will vary greatly between jurisdictions.

To learn more about the records available for Harford County I recommend the Harford County, Maryland Genealogy page of FamilySearch.org as a good starting point:

Guide to Harford County, Maryland ancestry, family history, and genealogy, birth records, marriage records, death records, census records, and military records.

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