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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!

 

Love at First Rinse Cycle, Or How the Arab Oil Embargo Changed My Life

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I’m affectionately thinking about how my husband and I first met.  Not your conventional meeting, I assure you.

It was February 1974, and I moved from Maryland to Northern Virginia to be closer to my job.  This was also during the oil embargo which left much of the country having to deal with long lines at the gas pumps. To complicate matters further, drivers were assigned odd or even days in which gas could be purchased.  I was tired of dealing with this situation.

With the help of the Washington Post apartment locator section, I found an efficiency apartment in Arlington, Virginia. The rent was $190 a month! Imagine that?!

A couple of days after moving in, I was looking for the building’s communal laundry room.  This was not something I was particularly looking forward to doing.   But as it turned out, going to the laundry room changed my life forever.

I loaded my clothes into a plastic laundry basket, grabbed my detergent put five bucks worth of quarters into my jean pocket, and headed for the laundry room.  Upon entering the laundry room, my first impressions were “Yuck!” The room was steamy, musty and grimy.  Dust bunnies were multiplying everywhere.  I knew that I didn’t want to spend any more time in this place than absolutely necessary.

All of a sudden my focus changed.  On the other side of the laundry room stood an attractive, dark haired young man.  He was busy stuffing clothes into a washer and pulling quarters out of his pocket.  I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm, who’s this?’

I conveniently found a washing machine located not too far from his.  And then with a helpless little smile on my face, I said, “Hi. I’m new to this building. How many quarters does this machine take?”

Bill was more than helpful and brought me up to snuff quickly on everything I needed to know about washing and drying everything from clothes to bathroom rugs.  Such a helpful and pleasant young man! He was very friendly and so easy to talk to – a nice change from guys I had been dating.

Well, that’s how it all started.  Our friendship and courtship began at the Executive Towers Apartments in Arlington, Virginia while we watched our clothes go through the spin cycle.

We would meet up a few more times in the laundry room, chat about life and work and how we hated commuting to our jobs.  Bill eventually asked me out for dinner and a movie. I invited him to my place for dinner, to meet my friends and eventually to meet my family.

A little more than a year later we married.

Our clothes have been spinning around together in the same machine for the last 37 years. So now as I think of it – laundry rooms aren’t such bad places after all!

’Tis the Season to Write Romantically (Guest Blogger)

I bought my husband a Valentine a few days ago, just like I’ve been doing for the last four decades. Yep, we’ve been together that long, and even though it has been that long, I still want him to know I love him in that way.

He shows me in multiple ways that he still feels that way about me. We are lucky, I know, and I don’t take our relationship for granted.

My husband has a romantic side. He likes the Los Angeles Lakers AND Jane Austen and isn’t embarrassed to be one in only a handful of men in the theatre to see a Jane Austen-ish kind of movie. He’s also a generous and clever gift-giver–both clever in the kind of gifts he chooses for me, and clever in the way he presents them to me. I’m sure that store clerks who help him with his purchases wish they were so lucky.

I have lots of stories I could write that illustrate his romantic side. Why would I want to write them? Because I want our children and future descendants to know that we loved each other in that way.

Often our children only see us as fuddy-duddy parents and can’t visualize us having a life before they came into the world. I suspect you know what I mean. I’ve taught personal history writing for the last 15 years, and the majority of my students tell me they’re writing their stories because they want their children to know what their lives were like before they became parents. Writing stories about the romantic aspects of our lives is one way of expanding our children’s vision of who we are.

So write that romantic story. Here are a few story ideas you might consider:

  • Follow my lead and write a story that illustrates your spouse’s romantic side. When I gave this assignment to my class last year, I was greeted by a blank stare…followed by some mumbling…followed by some derisive laughter. “Now listen, folks,” I retaliated, “not everyone’s a hearts and flowers kind of person.” We then discussed various ways spouses show affection, like cleaning the house when you’re sick, or praising you to their children, or always looking nice for you, or watching a Jane Austen movie with you when they’d rather watch the Lakers…that kind of thing.
  • Write about an adolescent “crush.” Reveal your awkwardness and all the embarrassing details. Be real, and your family will see you in a new light.
  • Write about your first kiss. Who cares if it was a bomb? (Mine was!) Write about it anyway. Be sure to put your story in its setting. Let readers SEE where the deed was done. Was there music playing in the background? Johnny Mathis set the stage for my big dud…”The Twelfth of Never.”
  • Write about your first date–or any interesting/crazy/embarrassing/romantic date you had. Teens don’t date anymore. Show your children’s generation what it was like in “your day.”
  • Write about a marriage proposal. Be as specific as you can. Who said what? How did you feel?
  • Write about your wedding day. Think of some interesting, fun, or surprising incidents that made the day stand out so your story is uniquely yours. Keep it personal…and romantic.
  • Write about your honeymoon. One of my students, an 87-year-old widow, wrote about her wedding night in surprising detail. Yes! It was a lovely story, written sensitively, and with great love. Her children will read the story and be happy their parents loved each other so much.

Now, whatever topic you choose, I recommend you do the following:

  • Write honestly and personally. Reveal your feelings, your disappointments, feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, and silliness. Show the real you.
  • Use lots of detail–about people and settings. Where did incidents take place? Let us SEE it. What were you wearing? What did other people look like? Add “sense details,” if appropriate–sound, smell, sight, taste, and feel.
  • Create scenes, if possible. Don’t just write a summary. Try to remember what was said, and re-create conversations as you remember them, capturing the emotional truth of the experience.
  • Snag readers’ attention from the get-go. Some experts advise beginning in the middle of things. Too often we feel like we need all kinds of back-story before we get to the interesting part. Don’t do it.
  • Don’t be in a rush to get it finished. Write a rough draft and let it sit for a while. You’ll soon think of things you’ll want to add.

That’s it. I think you’ll enjoy this writing assignment. Get into the spirit. Play some Johnny Mathis, or whoever rocks your boat. Browse through some old photos albums to resurrect old memories. Then sit at your desk and put it all down on paper.

Dawn Parrett Thurston has taught life story writing at Santiago Canyon College in Orange County, CA for the last 15 years. She and her husband are co-authors of the book Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will WANT to Read, available from Amazon and the publisher, Signature Books. Dawn is on the board of directors of the Association of Personal Historians. Her blog, www.MemoirMentor.com/blog, was selected as one of the Top 10 Personal History Blogs of 2011 by Dan Curtis.