52 Documents in 52 Weeks #11: Early Kentucky Death Records

I have to admit I began my family history research with a bit of a spoiled view because my mother’s family was from New England, home to many fabulous genealogical collections.

On the other hand, my husband’s family were mostly Southerners who lived on the frontier or in places where records weren’t kept or else they managed to find places where records were kept, but they all burned. Finding vital records in the 1800s can be next to impossible.

However, there are a few exceptions. One of them is the collection of Kentucky death records kept from 1852-1856 and then from 1858 to 1859 in Cumberland County. Cumberland, by the way, is not unique in holding these records.

It was actually Kentucky law at the time to begin recording deaths and affiliated information generated by someone’s passing.

I lucked out with Joseph Riddle, who was courteous enough to pass away in late 1856 rather than waiting until 1857, as the death records for that year are missing.

The information contained in these registers equals many New England records. Additionally, black deaths, both slave and free, were also recorded. When a slave passed away, his or her owner’s name was recorded in place of parents’ names.

If you are new to Kentucky research, check to see what vital records are extant for your own counties of interest.

Here is a sample of the Cumberland County register covering September 1856:


Line 12 – Joseph Riddle

The left side of the deaths register lists Joseph’s name, his color, his age (77 years), sex, occupation (farmer), condition (married or single), date of death (4 September 1856) and cause of death, which in this case I am unable to read.

The right hand side of the register has additional data:


Line 12 – Joseph Riddle

Next, the names of parents, or slave owner in the case of blacks who were not free, place of birth, residence and place of death are all noted.

This is the only confirmation that William and Happy (Wm. and Hopy) Riddle were Joseph’s parents. The Riddles were known to be living in Montgomery County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War. This entry could be either Smyth or Wythe County, both being misspelled, but I think with the lack of the letter M, that it is probably Wythe County.

Take one more look at the pages in this register. There are two blacks whose deaths are reported. Let’s look at Tyler, the two year old listed two lines above Joseph Riddle. Also, note the death of little Mary Walthall, 5 months old, right above Joseph.


Deaths of Mary Walthall and Tyler, an enslaved toddler

Now, look at page 2:


Parents and Owner

William H. Walthall was the owner of little Tyler, while William H. and Nancy Walthall were the parents of little Mary, both of whom died of scarlet fever on the same day, 28 April 1856.

If my family had ties to the Walthalls or I suspected that William had owned some of my enslaved family, the 1850 and 1860 censuses are available to search as well as property records.

This collection is on Ancestry, but it also has been microfilmed and is at the Family History Library, which is where I accessed it. Actually, Ancestry’s images are cleaner and Joseph’s cause of death – dysentery – can be read, as can Wythe County, VA, his place of birth. The lesson here is to not assume that vital records don’t exist and to check in more than one place to see if one record is more legible than the other!

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