Genealogy Tip: Marriage Records

Introduction: In this article, Katie Rebecca Garner gives tips on how to find and use your ancestors’ marriage records for your family history research. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

Genealogists explore all aspects of their ancestors’ lives, including their romances and loves. Your existence is due to many ancestors’ romances; each ancestral couple lived their own love story prior to bearing your next ancestor. This repeated generation after generation until your parents bore you. Therefore, looking for your ancestors’ marriage records is a perfect way to honor them and fill in details on your family tree. Read on to learn how.

Illustration: a wedding cake

Types of Marriage Records

When a marriage took place, the intention to marry was often recorded as well as the actual marriage. The intention to marry took the form of marriage banns, marriage bonds, and marriage licenses. In the case of a minor getting married, consent papers from the parents would also be filed.

Marriage banns were usually posted in the church for the three weeks prior to the wedding to give community members time to voice objections. Marriage bonds were contracted by the groom or a relative of the bride to guarantee the marriage could take place. Marriage licenses were filed by the government and are still used today. Marriage licenses contain more detailed information than marriage banns and bonds.

After the wedding took place, the marriage would be recorded on a register or certificate and returned to the state. However, in the nineteenth century and earlier, it was also likely that the officiator of the marriage kept the records in his own personal journal.

The following information is typically contained in marriage records:

  • Date of the marriage
  • Church where marriage ceremony occurred
  • County where the marriage took place
  • Name of minister or priest performing the marriage
  • Full names of bride and groom
  • Date and/or place of birth for bride and groom
  • Age at time of marriage
  • Occupations of the bride and groom
  • Whether single, widowed or divorced
  • Names and birthplaces of the bride’s and groom’s parents
  • Names of the witnesses to the marriage, who were often relatives

This information can be used to help locate birth information of the bride and groom, find other relatives, discover previous marriages, identify which church the ancestral family attended, and confirm residency. In cases where an ancestor had children with multiple spouses, marriage records can help sort out which child belongs to which marriage.

How to Find Marriage Records

Before looking for marriage records, it helps to have an idea of when and where the couple married. Some census records state how many years a couple was married or the age at first marriage. A marriage date can also be estimated based on the oldest child’s date of birth. While many couples had their first child within a few years of getting married, it is best not to assume this was always the case. The first few children may have miscarried so the oldest surviving child may have been born several years after the couple married. Even in the olden days, couples sometimes got pregnant before marriage, so the first child may have been born only a few months after the marriage or even before the marriage. In such cases, the couple may try to cover that up by falsifying dates later on. The estimated date is a clue to help in searching for the marriage record.

Knowing the location is more important than knowing the date. Records were kept at the local level, and online databases are sorted by place more than by date. Where was the oldest child born? Where did the bride and groom reside before getting married? Where did the bride’s family live? These are all possible locations where the marriage might have taken place.

Search for records within the city and county where the couple is likely to have gotten married. Online databases include church and civil marriage records. Look for marriage announcements in the newspapers that were published at the time and place of the marriage. GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives include marriage announcements. Check family Bibles and personal histories. Search Google Books.

If no marriage records are found online, contact the church or state archive of the place where the couple may have married. Not all records are online, and the marriage record may be sitting in a basement or archive.

If no marriage record is found in the county where the marriage should have taken place, try neighboring counties or states. Look up the “Gretna Greens” of the place your ancestors lived. Gretna Greens are towns in neighboring counties or states where couples commonly go to get married (like Las Vegas in the west); these couples may have been underage or may have wanted less paperwork, or less waiting time.

As you research your family history, be sure to search for your ancestors’ marriage records, including in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. As you find your ancestors’ marriage records, remember that their love was part of what made you.

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