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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!