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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!

 

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!

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Your Next Summer Vacation at The State Archives

Planning your summer vacation?  Going to the mountains? The beach? Well, how about a visit to the state archive?

The state archive may not be the first destination to come to mind. But don’t overlook their importance. State archives are so full of information, and no two are the same.  Often, not only do they have extensive libraries of published indexes, but they have so many records that are not available anywhere else.  Before you jump in the car, however, there are a few things you might try first:

  • Check out their websites.  A great one-stop-shop for finding the state
    archive (and any associated contributing historical groups) is put together by the Council of State Archivists at http://www.statearchivists.org/states.htm.  Choose your state and off you go.
  • At the website, check for digitized records online.  You’ll be surprised to see how many different types of records are available – death, military, historic photos, and more.  Most archive sites have a link conveniently titled “Genealogy.”
  • At the website, check the online catalog.  Use the catalog to plan what you need to look at when you get there, how it is stored (textual records, microfilm, fiche, off-site), and any restrictions for use. Every archive website is set up differently, and some are a little more difficult to navigate than others.
  • Ask about the loan program. Did you know that many state archives participate with your local library in an interlibrary loan program?  For example, I knew it would take weeks to do line-by-line searches in old handwritten copies early of New York county tax records. When I checked the online catalog I found that the microfilm could come to my local library.  There are sometimes costs for this, but in my case, there was only a limit to how many films I could order at one time.  Those eight films took me four weeks to go through, but it was four weeks I was able to spend on my own time from home, and not a four-week trip to New York.
  • Don’t like the website?  Keep trying.  I used to hate the website maintained by my own state.  The problem was partially in the way records were named, but the problem was more about my own inexperience.  The more I used the site, the easier its navigation became.  If you need help, ask around.  Is there anyone you know at your local genealogical society who uses the site often who can tutor you?  It is worth the effort.
  • Plan the visit! Most archive websites have rules for using the facility, hours of operation, parking information, photocopy costs, rules for computers and cameras, and even short tutorials to help you.  Read up – you’ll end up frustrated if you go there and it is closed because of a holiday or you cannot find parking.  When you get there, ask if they offer tours of the facility.
  • While you’re there, look for county records. Sometimes the state archive may solve your burned county conundrum.  Many times counties were required to send copies of their records to a state facility.  Even if the county archive burned down (again!), copies of many types of records may have been obtained by the state archive.

Maybe going to a state archive isn’t your family’s idea of a good vacation destination or maybe you don’t have time to go right now.  Have a digital mini-vacation and visit the website of your favorite state archive and get familiar with its holdings.  Personally, I am bartering right now with my husband to go to any state archive near a baseball stadium – that way we can divide and conquer as we travel.

What works best for you?  What have you enjoyed or found at your state archive?  Write and share your ideas. Happy trails!

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Educate Yourself!

The more I learn about genealogy, the more I realize how much more there is to learn.  There’s always a new record group or website or archive I don’t know enough about.  Where can anyone go to learn more about the family history research they enjoy so much?  There are so many ways to learn and places you can go, you’ll be surprised! Here are 6 sources of information that should help you in your research:

1. Conferences.  Local and nationally sponsored conferences are held all over the United States.  Look for the one-day conferences sponsored by genealogical and historical societies in your area.  Often they are inexpensive or even free.  Contact your local genealogical society or LDS Family History Center to ask if they know what is coming up.  Some of the biggest nationally-sponsored conferences last several days and require travel.  The great thing about conferences is that they are a one-stop-shop for some of your favorite speakers and genealogical topics.

2. Seminars.  For week-long seminars with a concentrated research focus, check out some of these:

  • IGHR. The Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research is highly regarded and its classes sell out quickly. Seminars are held at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • NIGR.  The National Institute for Genealogical Research is designed for the more experienced researcher, and focuses on records available at the National Archives.  I would certainly go again; there was so much to learn!
  • SLIG.  The Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy sponsored by the Utah Genealogical Society offers the double bonus of being able to research down the street at the LDS Family History Library.  SLIG offers many classes for all levels of experience.

3. Taped lectures and online tutorials.  There is no way to list every online tutorial experience for genealogists, but here are a few to get you started:

  • CDs from national conferences can be ordered from Jamb Tapes.  I like to order favorite speakers and listen over and over, especially if I can’t make it to a conference this year.
  • FamilySearch offers great beginner tutorials from top genealogists at their online Learning Center.
  • Check out the handwriting tutorials from Brigham Young University. There is a wealth of early handwriting types and some self-tests.
  • More experienced researchers looking to hone their professional skills may consider joining one of the 18-month online learning groups sponsored by ProGen.  They study the book Professional Genealogy edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills.  These industrious learners gather online for scheduled chats and share assignments for peer review.  Get on the waiting list at http://progenstudy.org/.

4. Online classes and at-home courses.   Sometimes you just need to learn by doing, and the creators of these programs both teach and review your work.

  • Boston University’s Genealogical Research Program has a high price but an equally high reputation.  They have a wealth of programs that take a few weeks or several months.
  • A fantastic program the beginner or intermediate level researcher really should consider is the National Genealogical Society’s Home Study Course.  Each lesson is backed up with an assignment that is reviewed and critiqued by a professional.  Their selections of online courses are wonderful for focused research.

5. Books and periodicals.  As a mother with young children, checking out beginning-style genealogy books at my local library was a great start (many, many years ago).  Now I love my growing personal library and print out a wish list of new genealogy books for my husband every Christmas.  Magazines and scholarly journals will also help researchers of all levels.  Ask for some samples at your local library or Family History Center and see what fits your level and interests before you subscribe.

6. Keep up to date.  Online blogs and interest groups will help keep you full of ideas.  Some favorites are:

Have another favorite I haven’t mentioned?  Let us know, and we will post your comments.  Just remember that your own education is in your hands.  Oscar Wilde
said it best when he quipped, “Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.”

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Research Plans


We are list-makers. We have to-do lists, grocery lists, and gift lists at holidays. A genealogical research plan is a specialized type of to-do list just for your family history project. To have a successful research plan, I have found it helpful to follow a few basic guidelines:

1. Make a written plan. You would be surprised how often we start our genealogy research without a plan, let alone a written one. Writing focuses our thinking and forces us to ask questions about the viability of certain research paths. When we review our timelines and background information, we have a better sense of what we need to find to accomplish our goals. Personally, I like to put the background information, timeline, and research plan in one document.

2. Stay focused. As I’ve mentioned before, you should have a specific goal in mind for your research, such as “Who are Emmeline’s parents?” It is easy to get sidetracked. For every goal you have, there may be a series of little jobs needed to accomplish it. If you get to thinking about other research goals for other ancestors, make note of those ideas for another time, and stay on target. Don’t just make a plan for what you want, tell yourself how to find what you’re looking for. If you have to stop your research for a while, you’ll be grateful for the reminder.

3. Don’t over-plan. I remember once when I really wanted to plan for every contingency in an upcoming research problem. I literally wrote down 28 things I could investigate, that would possibly solve my problem. I followed the plan and ordered a vital record that was at the top of my list. Imagine my consternation when I got the vital record back and it changed the focus of everything I had on the rest of my list. The moral of the story is to not plan too far ahead, because the information we find may not be what we expected. Nowadays, I generally make a plan that involves 3 to 5 items, and I don’t go further until I have the results of one or two of them. This takes us to our next point…

4. Be flexible. Remember that theories about what our ancestors did and why are just that: Theories. Not proof. Not evidence. Our research is directed at finding the truth, and that may not necessarily follow our theories. When you get results from your research, take that into account. It may change the rest of your plan. I don’t think I have ever had a single research plan that did not change with time.

5. Plan effectively. If you want to find Emmeline’s parents, the first part of your plan should be the most effective strategy, not necessarily the easiest. Perhaps finding Emmeline’s obituary (and searching a few newspapers line-by-line) is more effective that finding every Emmeline (maiden name unknown) that lived in a certain census year. Effective doesn’t mean easy, nor does it necessarily mean difficult. Effective means you are more likely to get results. By far, the most effective things I find to put at the top of any research plan is to order birth, marriage, and death records, if they are available at the ancestor’s time period and location. What this really involves is finding out what records are available in your ancestor’s location. Try the FamilySearch Wiki for some great ideas from other researchers.

6. Some plans are location-based. Sometimes you know you are going to travel to a major facility, such as the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake, or the National Archives in Washington, DC. While they may not have everything you want to answer your research question (vital records are rarely at the National Archives, for example), you still need to plan to make the best use of your time. Find out information about hours, parking, copies, and restrictions so you do not get frustrated about something that has nothing to do with your actual research. Go online ahead of time to check online catalogs and plan out what you want most, and what can be your “Plan B” while you are waiting for records to be pulled or you don’t find what you wanted.

A sample research plan may look like the one below. Remember to adapt yours as needed. The research plan police are not out to get you. Over time, you may find you create your plans differently than you had in the past. The important thing is to make a plan, and refer to it often as you research.

Research Plan for finding Emmeline’s parents, born about 1869 in Genesee County, New York:

Background information: Emmeline (no known maiden name) was married to Augustus Wingate, probably by 1887, in Genesee County, New York. She died in 1937 in Washington, DC.

What to do and why:
• Order death certificate for Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC 1937. HOW: They should be on LDS microfilm, check the catalog. WHY: Emmeline’s maiden name and parents’ names should be listed on her death certificate.
• Check for obituary of Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC in 1937. HOW: Find the online Historic Washington Post available through many public libraries. WHY: Find out if it mentions any parents or living siblings.
• Order the marriage record of Augustus Wingate in Genesee County in 1887. HOW: New York vital records started in 1881, but not all were recorded. Call the county historian for instructions, the record is too early to be at the State Archives. WHY: Some marriage applications list the parents of the bride, or the witnesses may be relatives.
• Check for censuses in Genesee County in 1880. HOW: Use Ancestry or HeritageQuest online. WHY: Where is Augustus living? Could Emmeline be living in the same county or a nearby county?

In this sample, I already have four ideas. While there are other things I could do, I may consider these to be the most effective. As the results come from my research, I may change or add more information. If, for example I find that Augustus lives in the town of Batavia in Genesee County, I might want to know more about church records available for that area. Read up on research plans in many books at your local library and in online tutorials. One of my personal favorites is an article by Helen F. M. Leary, “Problem Analysis and Research Plans,” Chapter 14 of Professional Genealogy (Elizabeth Shown Mills, Editor. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Fourth Printing, 2005).

Remember, a plan is only the first step. How far will it take you? Try it out and let us know!