Category Archives: Advice

Love and Marriage: Genealogical Records of Walking Down the Aisle

Marriage records are some of the earliest records available in the United States that offer a wealth of genealogical gems.  They may include the ages of the bride and groom, their residences, and sometimes a parent or other relative’s name.

Modern marriage records can help us understand earlier records.  If you are married, think about the variety of records leading up to the wedding.  Did you go to the courthouse to apply for a license?  Was a notice of the engagement, or of the wedding placed in a local newspaper?  Were you married at a church, and did the church note it in their records?  If married at the church, the pastor/priest/officiator was required to report his or her completion of that ceremony to the local court.  If married civilly, was there a record of the wedding at the courthouse separate from that first license you applied for?  Did the court and/or church give you a private certificate, suitable for framing?  Did you send out invitations or annoucements? Were photos taken at your wedding?  Did friends or relatives write or blog about the celebration?  Looking at all these situations, we can see at least eight different types of records created about the event.  Think of your ancestors’ weddings in much the same way: if a record of the marriage isn’t in one place, it may be in another.

Here’s a very brief review of the types of marriage records that may be available in a variety of places:

State and Local Records

Marriage records are not federal records.  They have always been maintained and governed by the county or state in which they occured.  Investigate the laws regarding marriage in your ancestor’s state and time period.

  1. Consents:  Written parental permission for a child to be married, especially if underaged.  Sometimes these are found to confirm that the child is of age.
  2. Marriage bonds:  A financial contract to hopefully avoid litigation of the marriage is nullified.  Usually signed by the groom and a male representative of the bride’s family.
  3. Marriage banns: Church declaration or posting of an intended marriage, to give the congregation an opportunity to oppose the marriage if there is a just cause to prevent it, i.e. the groom has another wife in the next county.
  4. Applications:  The application to marry often asks the bride and groom about ages, birthplaces, parent’s names, and previous marriages.  Check to see how early these were used in the county you’re searching.
  5. License: Court approval of the marriage application.  These are often found at the bottom of the application in most pre-printed court books.  Note that the date of marriage application or license is not always the same as the date of the wedding!
  6. Minister’s Returns:  Sometimes these are separate reports from ministers or Justices of the Peace that a marriage ceremony was preformed.  The clerk should be noting these at the bottom of the marriage application/license.  If there is no return it may indicate that 1) the marriage did not occur, or 2) the minister didn’t make it back to the clerk to report.  If there is no return, you may need to look for other indications of co-habitation after the date of the license.
  7. Divorce Records:  When couples break up, they make a lot of records.  Early divorces were granted only on the state level, but were overseen later by county courts.  Check Chancery and Equity records, or ask the clerk of the court.

Church Records

  1. Minister or Church Clerk books:  Church records vary from church to church and often from one minister to another.  The marriages may be recorded together, chronologically, or mixed in with other rites, such as baptism or burials.
  2. Church minutes:  If there are no records of marriages, check the minutes for listings of members.  Spouses may be referred to when they join or move.

Newspapers

  1. Wedding Annoucements:  For my own grandparents, I found multiple news articles.  There were at least two listings of bridal showers, the pre-wedding announcement, the post-wedding announcement, and an entire article on who attended and what they wore with a photo of the happy couple looking dubiously at a wedding present they’d just unwrapped.  Thank goodness for small town newspapers!  Don’t forget to check for those silver anniversary announcements too.

Private Family Records

The wonderful thing about family records of weddings is that they are so diverse and can be held by so many different family members.  Get to know second and third cousins who may have inherited unique memoribilia.  These may include:

  • Invitations
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Photos
  • Journals and Letters
  • Family Bibles

Take some time to “walk down the aisle” with your ancestors and search for their marriage records. Find out more by reading up on early marriage practices and customs.  If your ancestors were of African-American descent, be aware that sometimes those records were kept separately.  If your ancestor participated in the Revolution, War of 1812, or Civil War, look for evidences of marriage produced by widows and heirs in pension applications.  For more information, read the wonderful article by Johni Cerny and Sandra H. Luebking, “Research in Marriage and Divorce Records” in the Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy.  You can also check for online guides about marriage records that are specific to time periods or countries at FamilySearch.org.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Letters to a Little Girl from the White House

My mother married my stepfather in April 1963.

I was eleven years old at the time.

But let me back track a bit.

In 1962, my stepfather-to-be came to San Francisco to attend a professional conference.  A girlfriend of my mother’s introduced my mother to my stepfather and cupid’s arrow stuck hard and fast.

Within two year’s time, my mother and I moved from San Francisco, California to Bethesda, Maryland, and life changed dramatically for both of us.

Throughout the long months before flying to Maryland, my stepfather wrote me many letters.  Each letter was a personal introduction of sorts.  In the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl I surely didn’t know what to expect from the man who would soon marry my mother and become the only father I had ever known.

Through the letters, he slowly revealed the kind of person he was and the kind of father he would be to me through his frequent and loving letters, which were either typed or handwritten and mailed directly to me.

He told me that he had a fifteen-foot sailboat and was fond of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.  He said that he wanted to teach me how to sail.  He told me that he was from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, his family still lived there and I would eventually meet them all. I knew he had an artistic side because he often included funny pictures and poems in his letters, all for my enjoyment.  He told me that he wanted to teach me how to ice skate in the winter months on the frozen canals in Washington, DC.  He was a devoted Roman Catholic and asked about my religious upbringing. He valued a strong and traditional education and his work caused him to travel widely.

But there was one thing that really stuck out about these letters. They were written on White House stationery.

 

At that time, my stepfather was acting as legal counsel for the Kennedy Administration. Several of the letters even mention my stepfather’s personal interactions with JFK.

December 16, 1962

By the way, during this past week, the President held his Christmas Party for his staff.  I shook hands with him and wished him a Merry Christmas.  During the evening, Caroline and one of her small friends came down the stairs to say hello to everybody. I sure wish you had been here to enjoy all the fun. 

Many of the specific memories have faded for me. My stepfather, now 84 years old, has Alzheimer’s disease.  As I hold my stepfather’s letters in my hands, I feel somehow connected to him again, and to my childhood, and to the love and affection that was so well expressed on sheets of paper.

Do you have family letters stored in shoeboxes up in your attic or on a shelf in your bedroom closet? When was the last time you read those letters and simply remembered days gone by?  What do those letters mean to you?  Please write and tell us. We’d love to hear from you.

New Year, Old Genealogical Problems

If you use the New Year to reinvigorate your genealogical research, how long does it take before you are throwing your hands up in frustration all over again?  Six months?  One month?  A week and a half?  You are not alone.  This year, let’s see if we can look at the old genealogical brick wall with new eyes using a few tricks:

  1. Research Log Re-boot:  If you don’t have a research log, you may end up repeating research or (worse!) missing clues that you need.  Take everything you know about the ancestor and create a research log with it.  Yes, this will take some time, but it is a critical part of re-assessing your research.  If you already have a research log, or are about to create one, try this idea:  Instead of putting your research in the order in which it was undertaken, put each item of found or attempted research into a category, such as probate, vital records, land records, census, military, family stories and bibles, etc.  Do you notice any record groups you have ignored?  You may have focused more on censuses and military records, and completely missed land records!
  2. New or Updated Websites:  You have some favorite go-to websites, we all do.  How about checking someplace that you haven’t before, haven’t checked in a while, or did not think may apply.  Genealogical websites are constantly updating their holdings.  Try a new newspaper website like Genealogybank.com (fee-based), NewspaperArchive (fee-based, available free at any LDS Family History Center), The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America page, or any local historic newspaper available through your public library’s website.  I was astounded at the amount of new digitized records available at FamilySearch, and solved a client’s research problem right from my home computer with the probate and land records available there.
  3. Learn Some History.  Perhaps part of your research problem is perspective.  What happened in your ancestor’s area during their life that may have affected the records they would have made?  Was a battle fought then?  Did county lines change?  Were they part of the religious reformation of the early 1800s?  A client recently spoke bitterly about a 3rd great-grandfather who abandoned his family.  As we looked at the timeline, I asked if the grand-father had served in the Civil War, and on which side.  The client had not thought about it before.  As it turns out, the ancestral family lived in a part of Virginia severely hit by the tragedies of War, and the grandfather was a young Confederate veteran.  We talked about the possibility of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress for both spouses.  We may never know exactly what caused their split, but knowing these little bits of history puts the family into a different light.
  4. Internet-heavy Research: The Microwave vs. the Stove.  As researchers, we are so very spoiled (no, I am not complaining).  So much is online at our fingertips.  However, relying too heavily on sources found online can blind us to records that are only available in State Archives, local historical societies, and local courthouses, etc.  Here’s my analogy for this problem:  In my kitchen I have both a stove with an oven and a microwave.  As you can imagine, I use both in almost all of my cooking.  I love my microwave because it is fast and easy, however I just can’t cook everything in it.  Sauces, eggs, pies, cookies, and sauteed vegetables just don’t quite work if I use the microwave to cook them.  I have to use the stove for some things.  Other things I really prefer using the microwave for.  In all my cooking, I use both of these tools.  In research, your microwave is like internet research: fast and relatively easy.  Your oven is more like on-site research or records your order through the mail; it will take longer, but the benefits are undeniable.  Use both your tools, and learn the benefits and limitations of each.
  5. Investigate the Neighbors.  If you are stuck, try a completely different approach: Neighbors and extended relatives.  Put down your research for that elusive ancestor and start up a new project for a neighbor of the ancestor or a relative (or presumed relative) in the area.  You may end up seeing their paths cross with the ancestor you’ve been working on and give you a new clue for your mystery man.  A great tool for this is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ new quick-sheet, The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research.

Hopefully I have given you some ideas.  The main point is not to give up.  Remember that even if you haven’t found that elusive ancestor, you have gained experience and education, and your time is not wasted.  Tell us some ideas that you have used to re-invigorate your research, we’d love to hear!

Happy Hunting!

Why should I keep a journal, or make a film about my life?

Many years ago I began keeping a daily journal about my life’s activities.  Over the years I have found it interesting to go back and see what I was doing, feeling, and thinking years ago. Recently, while reading an old journal entry, I read about a heated disagreement I had with a friend. With hindsight I realize now I had acted petty and immature.  It made me appreciate that I’ve done some growing up since then!

A few days ago it dawned on me that many of the reasons for journaling could also be applied to the value of making a personal history film or video biography.

As in journaling, a personal history film provides you with the opportunity to:

  1. Document the stories of your life – the good, the bad and the ugly!
  2. Record the great things that have happened to you and to your family over the years.
  3. Record how you have felt about the world around you.
  4. Record your personal and professional achievements (and disappointments).
  5. Record hopes, dreams and beliefs – for yourself and for your family.  Learned life lessons and wisdom become clearer with age.
  6. Record meaningful personal and family events to pass down to future generations – even those yet unborn!
  7. Provide an opportunity to express gratitude for the opportunities and things you have.
  8. Record significant events in the world around you and how they have affected you personally (such as WWII, social and global financial changes, etc.)
  9. Provide an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate the experiences of your life.
  10. Share relevant stories of the past for the benefit of future generations.

Everyone has a life to celebrate.  Lessons learned, problems solved, tragedies survived, observations made, creativity expressed and maturity gained.

For whatever stories about your life you’d like to share, consider a journal or a personal history film in 2013.

The annual letter: A cherished family tradition

Twenty-four years ago I decided to enclose a one-page personal letter with each one of our Christmas cards.

My goal: to share with our family and friends the highlights of the year’s activities.  Fifty or so people have received our letters and the response from them was positive. We, in turn, received many interesting and creative Christmas letters.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to keep a copy of each year’s Christmas letter.  Every year I place the newest letter in a Christmas green binder for safekeeping. This year as I read those letters once again I realized that the letters give a pretty good history of the highlights of our family’s activities over the last twenty-four years. Little did I know just how precious these letters would become as the years have passed by.

In 1988, the letters recall our being stationed in Nicosia, Cyprus and living a cautious and careful life of an American Embassy family. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 departing Heathrow Airport was bombed while flying over Lockerbie, Scotland.  One of our own security officers was on board the flight.  Several days later, my husband and I attended the memorial service to honor this young man at the US Embassy in Nicosia.  After this tragic event our ambassador ordered that Americans should not meet in large groups for fear of additional attacks.  As a result my two daughters’ school Christmas parties were canceled and Americans did not gather that year for their traditional Christmas party at the Marine House.

In 1990, we were living outside of London and my young daughters attended a British school for two years. Before leaving England, my friends gave a party in my honor.  The party took the form of British High Tea – a dressy afternoon event where fancy finger foods and punch were served.  Within a week’s time, we were back in Virginia and attending the Prince William County Fair.  By the end of that day we had seen pigs, sheep and cows and even watched a truck pull.  I thought to myself, what a change of lifestyle! In the next years our two daughters grew from being little girls with pronounced British accents to young and independent American women. From learning to ride their bicycles, to working on Algebra and French homework, to taking drivers ed and scaring the daylights out of their parents, and then going off to college— it is all there on the pages of our family’s Christmas letters.

Thirty-eight years ago, it was just my husband and me. Today, our family has grown to eight people.  The lives of all eight of us are recounted on the pages of those Christmas letters.

As I read these letters I realized how many things had slipped from my memory. And what a shame it would have been if those family memories had been lost forever.

And that reminds me…I’d better get writing this year’s letter.  Our friends and family are waiting and my Christmas green binder has an empty page protector marked “2012”.

How about you?  Do you write a yearly letter? How do you record the history of your family?  If you don’t, perhaps 2012 is the time to start. Enjoy!