Interesting discussion over at Genea-Musings here and here regarding the question whether an American of Colonial descent should be able to document his complete ancestry back ten generations.
The problems Randy brings up are rooted in our unique American history:
- Ours is a federal system of government. Any requirements for BMD registration were first imposed by 13 diverse colonies and their various governments, later by the states. These requirements have converged toward universal registration, but even today some states have policies that other states would never countenance.
- Ours is a secular nation. No state church means there is a bright line between civil and religious registration of BMDs, and no consistent policy among churches on registering them. (There are days when I wish all my ancestors had emigrated from Quebec.)
Also, the penalties for skipping civil registration were less draconian than the potential costs of not inviting a priest to your wedding or neglecting to baptize your infant. The penalty for not reporting or recording a birth, marriage or death in Maine in 1844 was $1, and rarely imposed. That's pretty cheap compared to the twin threats of eternal damnation and mother-in-law disapproval.
- Ours was a country of frontiers. For much of our history land was settled before it was governed. This was true not only in the West, but even at the uninhabited fringes of long-settled states like Maine. BMDs here were recorded at the local level, generally with no requirement to report them to the county or state. If no local government yet existed, the events went unrecorded. Some couples traveled miles to the nearest incorporated settlement to ensure that their marriage intentions were recorded, but births and deaths in these families were recorded only privately, if at all.