Genealogy 101: #14 Marriage Licenses

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega discusses one of the most important family history records: marriage licenses. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Why do genealogists search for marriage records? Genealogy is about confirming relationships through the generations. One way to confirm relationships is to verify a marriage between two families. Marriage records, such as marriage licenses, provide the tool to do that.

Now, am I saying that everyone who had a child married? No, of course not – but when we are connecting children to their parents, one source we look at are marriage records.

So how do you start your search for the facts about your ancestor’s marriage? Read on for ideas of what’s available and how to find those records.

Photo: Indiana marriage licenses
Photo: Indiana marriage licenses. Credit: FamilySearch*

Why Marriage Licenses?

Marriages, depending on the time period and place, can mean a whole host of different records. For our purposes here, let’s discuss the most common record: a marriage license, that when executed may also include a marriage certificate.

Marriage licenses were issued by a government authority like a county clerk, and instructed the person who would marry the couple that they were able to do so. Once the marriage took place, the officiant signed the license. Then that license was returned to the authority that issued it and a certificate may have been issued (or the certificate/license is one form).

Genealogy Tip: local newspapers often printed lists of recently-granted marriage licenses, so be sure to include this search in your newspaper research.

An article listing recently-granted marriage licenses, Evening News newspaper article 9 May 1903
Evening News (San Jose, California), 9 May 1903, page 3

Now, one word of warning: everyone who applied for a marriage license didn’t end up getting married. So, we would hope to find other evidence, including the marriage certificate, to prove the marriage actually took place.

Who Has a Marriage License?

Marriage licenses replaced early marriage permissions (like Banns), so whether your ancestor had a marriage license depends on the time and place they married. See the chart below for a guideline of years that states issued marriage licenses/certificates.

Marriage License Availability

Alabama

1936

Alaska (sealed for 50 years)

1913

Arizona

1909

Arkansas        1917 California        1905
Colorado         1907 Connecticut      1897 Delaware         1847 Florida          1927 Georgia         1952
Hawaii       1842 Idaho           1947 Illinois          1962 Indiana          1958 Iowa           1880
Kansas          1913 Kentucky       1958 Louisiana       1870 Maine           1892 Maryland       1950
Massachusetts 1841 Michigan      1867 Minnesota        1958 Mississippi        1926 Missouri        1881
Montana     1943 Nebraska        1909 Nevada         1968 New Hampshire 1883 (1640 from town clerk) New Jersey      1848
New Mexico      1920 New York      1880 North Carolina 1962 North Dakota 1925 Ohio          1949
Oklahoma      1908 Oregon        1906 Pennsylvania  1885 Rhode Island     1853 South Carolina 1950
South Dakota 1905 Tennessee

1945

Texas

1966

Utah

1887

Vermont

1955

Virginia        1912 Washington      1968 West Virginia 1964 Wisconsin      1907 Wyoming

1941

Please note that some counties or cities started recording births much earlier than their parent state. So always check the county your ancestor married in. In New England, vital records may be kept on the town level. Interruptions (like war) can also occur with vital record registration, leaving some births not recorded. The District of Columbia started vital records registration in 1861.**

Where Are Marriage Records?

Marriage announcements, lists of recently-granted marriage licenses, and details about specific weddings can all be found in the pages of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives. Make sure when you search for marriage license and engagement information that you search by the bride’s maiden name as well as the groom’s name.

Another excellent place to find marriage records is FamilySearch. Start by searching the FamilySearch Catalog by place and then by subject, such as Vital Records and Vital Records –Indexes. You can also search the Historical Records collection on FamilySearch by clicking on Search>Records and then choosing a place to find what digital marriage record images and indexes are available.

A great feature of FamilySearch’s Family History Research Wiki is individual wiki pages that provide information about where to find marriage records for each state. Consult the How to Find United States Marriage Records wiki page and then choose the state link you are researching.

Where else might you find marriage records? Subscription and government-run websites should be checked next. A helpful finding aid to websites with marriage records can be found on the Online Birth & Marriage Records Indexes of the USA website.

Another approach in your search for marital proof is to contact the state or county recorder’s office for a copy of the marriage license and certificate. To get information about state vital records see the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Where to Write for Vital Records web page. I highly recommend finding the county vital record office website and starting your search there first. Often ordering through a county will be quicker than through a state office.***

Start Searching for Marriage Records Today!

Marriage licenses are just one type of marriage record available. My next article, on Marriage Record Alternatives, will provide more information about other types of marriage records and alternatives.

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* “Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9XF-W8SJ?cc=1410397&wc=Q83F-HBF%3A963066801%2C1067899602: 21 January 2016), Morgan > image 38 of 328; County clerk offices, Indiana.
** Vitalrec.com; FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki; Family Tree Magazine Vital Records Chart.
*** I’m using the word “county” here generically. “Counties” in Louisiana are called “Parishes” and in Alaska they are “Boroughs.”

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