The office of register in Tennessee can be traced back to the period when this region was part of the English colony of Carolina. The office was provided for in the colony's first fundamental law, known as the “Concessions and Agreements” of 1665. This office was patterned along the English model. The register's general duties have always been to record various types of legal instruments and transactions, particularly those conveying title to land. The register's office in Carolina continued under the colony's “Fundamental Constitution” of 1715. The qualified voters elected three freeholders who became candidates for the office. The governor then appointed one of these three small landowners to be the register. The register was to serve during good behavior.
When Tennessee became a state in 1796, the first constitution included a provision for a register to be elected by the county court in every county. The term of office was indefinite and the register was to serve “during good behavior.” The Tennessee Constitution of 1835 provided for the popular election of the register for a term of four years, reflecting the trend of the Jacksonian era. Tennessee's Constitution of 1870 retained the office of register and continued the term of office at four years. The 1978 amendments to the Tennessee Constitution retained the four-year term for the register.
Tennessee's Constitution does not specify any duties for the office of register. Therefore, the Legislature is free to determine the duties of the register by statute and has done so.
The duties of the register first centered on registering or recording, by transcription, deeds to real property. This basic function, in regard to land titles, remains a vital one. However, over the years, other types of instruments have been added to those eligible for registration. Today, many of the basic duties of the office are listed in Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 8-13-108. Many other statutes must be referred to in order to complete the list of duties that the register must perform in today's office.