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Expanding the Scope of Your North Carolina Death Certificate Search

By: Traci Thompson, CG®

The year 1913 is one of the first dates a new North Carolina genealogical researcher learns. 

This was the year that North Carolina began to keep vital records on a statewide basis. The birth and death certificates that subsequently came into being, provide genealogists with a fundamental source of information.(( “An Act to Provide for the Registration of All Births and Deaths in the State of North Carolina,” Public Laws and Resolutions of the State of North Carolina Passed by the General Assembly at Its Session of 1913…(Raleigh, NC: Edwards & Broughton, 1913), Chapter 109, p. 190; digital images, State Library & State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 2018).)) Researchers often first learn this date when they venture into the county courthouses, where keepers of vital records sometimes automatically say, “We have no death records prior to 1913,” and the researcher looks no further. 

Thus the year 1909 is eclipsed by the magical year of 1913 and rarely noted. However, this year could be of equal importance, depending upon where one’s ancestors lived, or more importantly, died. 

In June 1909, the Secretary of the State Board of Health wrote:

“Probably the weakest spot in our sanitary legislation has been the lack of reliable vital statistics…A model vital statistics bill for States was sent to us by both the Bureau of the Census and the American Medical Association. Theoretically, it was an excellent bill…but for our State, with its large, widely scattered rural population, and one-third of that negroes, it would  have been little short of absurd. After a very careful consideration of the subject it was decided that any attempt at the collection of reliable vital statistics holding out the least hope of success, for the present at least, would have to be limited to incorporated towns.”((“Report of the Secretary, May 20, 1908, June 11, 1909,” Bulletin of the North Carolina Board of Health, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, June 1909, p. 27-28; digital images, State Library & State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 2018).))

In March 1909, the General Assembly of North Carolina had enacted “An Act to Provide for the Registration of Deaths in Municipalities of One Thousand Population and Over in the State of North Carolina.” This act provided:

That all deaths that occur in cities and towns having a population of one thousand or over by the last preceding federal census shall be registered by the clerks or other officials designated…within three days after the occurrence of said deaths and before the bodies are removed, interred, or otherwise disposed of…that a certificate of death, of standard form, provided by the State Board of Health, shall be filed with the local registrar…That the local registrar shall number each certificate as received, record it in a local register of deaths, and promptly by the fifth day  of the following calendar month send all of the original certificates  to the secretary of the State Board of Health at Raleigh…Ratified this the 6th day of March, A.D. 1909.((“An Act to Provide For the Registration of Deaths in Municipalities of One Thousand Population and Over in the State of North Carolina,” Public Laws and Resolutions of the State of North Carolina Passed by the General Assembly at Its Session of 1909…(Raleigh, NC: E.M. Uzzell & Co., 1909), Chapter 722, p. 1111-1113; digital images, State Library & State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 2018).))

The law was asserted to be “the first practical vital statistics law in the South”.((“Report of the Secretary, May 20, 1908, June 11, 1909,” Bulletin of the North Carolina Board of Health, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, June 1909, p. 27-28; digital images, State Library & State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 2018). ))  It was amended in 1911 to include all towns having a population of 500 or more.((Warren H. Booker, C.E., Assistant Secretary, “The Value of Vital Statistics and Their Relation to Public Health Work,” Bulletin of the North Carolina State Board of Health, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, July 1912, p. 126; digital images, State Library & State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 2018).))

Enforcement was an issue. The Bulletin of the North Carolina Board of Health for December, 1909 scolded, “This action is not optional with the State Registrar, but obligatory” and complained “there are some who continue to send in certificates showing the grossest mistakes.” The Bulletin explained, “…unless it [the law] is fully and accurately complied with the results are misleading, and to be misled is worse than not to be led at all. In other words, better no registration of deaths than an inaccurate registration.” Inadequate certificates included those “filled out, or even partly filled out, with a lead pencil,” ones that were “not properly numbered,” and those “the writing on which is illegible.”((Notice to Local Registrars,” Bulletin of the North Carolina Board of Health, Vol. XXIV, No. 9, December 1909, p. 128-129; digital images, State Library & State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 2018).))

By July 1912, the need for a statewide vital statistics law was discussed in the Bulletin: “Strange indeed that we require private and official record of so many trivial matters, and yet neglect these weighty things…It is absolutely necessary that you make official record of your residence, age, nativity, etc. before you are allowed the right of suffrage. You can not buy a foot of ground unless you have the transaction recorded…Yet birthdays are frequently a matter of tradition, and funerals are recorded, if at all, only on tombstones.” The writer longed for “…the dawn of a better day when North Carolina may take her place as a total registration State along with such progressive States as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, and lately our sister State Virginia.”((Warren H. Booker, C.E., Assistant Secretary, “The Value of Vital Statistics and Their Relation to Public Health Work,” Bulletin of the North Carolina State Board of Health, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, July 1912, p. 122-126; digital images, State Library & State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 2018).)) Although the idea of “progressive” was likely debatable, this did come to pass on July 1, 1913 when the North Carolina Vital Statistics Law for statewide registration went into effect.((“Bureau of Vital Statistics,” Fifteenth Biennial Report of the NC State Board of Health, 1913-1914 (Raleigh, NC: Edwards & Broughton, 1915), p. 16; digital images, State Library & State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/ : accessed 2018).))

When searching the Ancestry record collection, “North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1976,”(( “North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1975,” Ancestry Library Edition (www.ancestrylibrary.com: accessed 2018); citing North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.)) with only the year 1909 as the death date and no other information included, 2,097 death certificates are located. These provide examples of the municipalities covered by the 1909 law. These municipalities included Tarboro, Durham, Kinston, Charlotte, Sanford, Raleigh, Asheville, Rocky Mount, Greensboro, New Bern, Kings Mountain, Scotland Neck, Fayetteville, Wilson, and Henderson. A search for the year 1910 gives 7,357 results and includes the municipalities of Washington, Goldsboro, Plymouth, Reidsville, and Dunn.  The results climb to 7,723 in 1911 and 8,821 in 1912. 

Therefore, if an ancestor died before the 1913 law, it is worth investigating the possibility that the death was covered by one of the previous limited laws between 1909 and 1912. Even if an ancestor resided in a rural area, it is possible that he or she may have been taken to a hospital in the nearest municipality as a result of sickness or injury and the death recorded there. 

An example is Raymond Gardner, infant brother of actress Ava Gardner.  At two years old, on February 20, 1911, he was accidentally injured by an exploding dynamite cap at his home in the rural community of Grabtown near Pine Level, Johnston County.  As Doris Rollins Cannon relates in her biography of Ava Gardner, Grabtown Girl, “The child was taken over eight miles of rutted, muddy road to the hospital in Smithfield, but efforts to save him were futile…”.((Doris Rollins Cannon, Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home (Asheboro, NC: Down Home Press, 2001), p. 17-18.)) Likely due to the nature of his injuries, Raymond was apparently transferred from Smithfield to Rex Hospital in Raleigh, Wake County, as his death certificate was filed there 24 hours later on February 21, 1911.((Rex Hospital, Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina, death certificate of Raymond Gardner, age 2 years, 2 months, and 16 days, 21 February 1911, stamped/registered # 94, cause of death “From explosion of dynamite cap” ; digital image, “North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1975,” Ancestry Library Edition (www.ancestrylibrary.com: accessed 2017); citing North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.)) If the child had died immediately in his rural home, instead of in a larger municipality, there would be no official documentation of the fact. 

North Carolina genealogists would do well to think first of 1909 instead of 1913 and consider a potential broader scope for death records. 


Additional Resources:

NCGS Vital Records Guide: Finding North Carolina Birth, Marriage, and Death Records
North Carolina Vital Records by the FamilySearch Wiki
How to Find Sources for NC Vital Records by the State Library of North Carolina


About the author: Traci Thompson, CG® is the Local History & Genealogy Librarian at Braswell Memorial Library in Rocky Mount, NC and holds a certified genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists in Washington, D.C.