Memorial Hall Library

Marriage Records for Genealogy

Tracing Love & Marriage in Your Family Tree

The February 14th meeting of the Discover Your Past Genealogy Club focused on researching marriages.  What follows is an excerpt from the talk.  
For genealogists, marriage records are often the most important building blocks of family trees. Weddings are an important rite of passage in all major world religions and cultures. Registering marriages in the United States has always been a quasi-legal, quasi-religious social function. There never has been a national, government-run marriage registry in the United States or in early America. 

 

Around the world, marriage records are kept by: 

  • churches
  • ministers
  • justices of the peace
  • state boards of health
  • colonial governors
  • military organizations
  • local, county, town governments
  • newspapers

From marriage records, genealogists hope to glean as much of the following information as possible:

  • names—especially the bride's maiden name which can be otherwise hard to find
  • parents' names for the bride and groom
  • ages and dates of birth
  • witnesses names
  • place of residence
  • occupation
  • officiant's name and denomination 

Genealogists should keep in mind that some states didn’t start keeping marriage records until the early 1900s. Until then marriage records were kept at the town and county level.  A good resource for keeping track of where to find U.S. marriage records by place is the FamilySearch Summary of Marriage Records by State wiki page.   

Types of United States Marriage Records

The major categories of U.S. marriage records are explained here in brief. For a fuller understanding as well as helpful, directional hints to research collections, see The FamilySearch wiki page United States Marriage Records.

1860 Marriage Bann
1860 Marriage Bann

Marriage Bans—the series of public announcements of an intended marriage.  

Marriage Bonds—written guarantees of payment made by the groom or a relative to ensure that a forthcoming marriage was legal.  

Marriage Applications & Licenses—records showing intent to marry. These gradually replaced the use of banns, intentions, and bonds by applying to the proper civil authorities, usually a town or county clerk. They include the couple's names, ages, and residence.

Illuminated Wedding Certificate
Illuminated Marriage Certificate from 1875

Certificate—often held privately by families, possibly by Town Clerks.

Registers and Returns—evidence that the marriage happened. Usually appears as a hand written log book.  

 

 

Divorce Records

Prior to 20th century, divorce was uncommon and in some places illegal. Divorce records are public records (usually court records). They aren't considered genealogical vital records, although some states do require that a certificate be filed with the vital records registry.

From divorce records, genealogists hope to glean as much of the following information as possible: 

"Marriages & Divorces Served Here"
Places like Tijuana were known for less restrictive and faster divorces. If your ancestor went away for a "quickie" divorce, look for records in a divorce haven.
  • number of children, names and ages
  • property, residence
  • court/legal records—there aren’t the same privacy laws
  • Contemporary case information is sealed except to relevant parties.
  • Records divorce date and marriage date and sometimes # of children.

You won’t find the case records online, but you can find indexes.

Beginning in 1880, Census has “D” indicator in the marital status column.

Early and 19th-century divorce case records can be found in colonial court records an state legislative records.  

Remarriage

Considering the high mortality rates of men and women in earlier times, many of our ancestors were likely married more than once.

Multiple marriages make it harder to parse out lineage on a family tree. Female ancestors' maiden names can be harder to find if they were married more than once due to the simple fact that researchers must go through multiple legal name iterations to find a woman's birth name. A sizable gap in children's ages may indicate that a couple had children who died or that maybe there was a first wife and mother who died in childbirth. 

Genealogists who suspect a person in their family tree was married more than once can: 

  • Look for more than one wedding announcement
  • Look for marriage banns or licenses to suggest that the another marriage was imminent
  • Consult obituaries

United States Remarried Widows Index to Pension Applications, 1887-1942 (available in FamilySearch)

​  Celebrity Remarriage isn't too hard to trace!   ​
Luckily celebrity marriages aren't too hard to trace!  This family tree could get rather large!

 

African American Marriages During Reconstruction

1844 slave marriage made legal by 1866 Freedman's Bureau marriage and certificate
1844 slave marriage made legal by 1866 Freedman's Bureau marriage and certificate
  • Prior to 1865, persons held in slavery had no legal right to marry.
  • Slave owners did occasionally permit men and women to live together.  Records were created after the Civil War to legitimize children born during slavery and unions that took place before the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) but are digitized and searchable in FamilySearch's Cohabitation Records Collections.
  • Slave unions were not legal nor were the protected by the state in anyway; slave families were frequently broken up by the demands of owners.
  • Slaves who did marry did so only with the consent of owners those marriages were almost never documented or performed by clergy.
  • The Freedman’s Bureau was charged with facilitating and documenting marriages for former slaves.
  • NARA holds Freedman’s Bureau Marriage records; they are searchable on FamilySearch.

Marriage Evidence From Bible Records

Edmund Pettus Family Bible Record from Alabama
Pettus family Bible Record from Alabama

Handwritten family history timelines in family Bible records represent a significant primary source for genealogists.  

From Bible records, genealogists hope to discover:

  • birth, marriage, and death dates for family members
  • multiple generations
  • military service and occupational information

Genealogical libraries with significant collections of family Bible records: 

The U.S. Census is a great place to look for marriage information

U.S. Census questions and categories containing marriage clues:

  • Between the years 1850 and 1900, WERE YOU MARRIED WITHIN THE YEAR? was a question on the census form.
  • In 1900 and 1910, HOW MANY YEARS HAVE YOU BEEN IN YOUR PRESENT MARRIAGE? was a question on the census form.
  • In 1930, WHAT WAS YOUR AGE AT YOUR FIRST MARRIAGE? was a question on the census form.
  • The category of “UNMARRIED PARTNER” first appeared in the 1990 census. Prior to that, cohabitation could only be inferred.
  • Beginning in 1880, the Census form offered a “D” indicator in the marital status column to represent divorce. 

Children on the U.S. Census as clues to marital history:

  • Children older than the number of years married indicate the likelihood of previous marriage.
  • The oldest child(ren) may not be biological.
  • Big gaps in the children’s ages may indicate that other children have died or that previous marriages took place. 
  • Children’s surnames can indicate other marriages.
  • Sometimes, biological children were listed before stepchildren—a common census taker practice.

Gretna Greens and Elopement

Headlines like these were common in the early to mid 20th century

At various times in U.S. history, elopement was considered stylish, practical and possibly the only viable way for a younger or somehow ineligible individuals to marry. When genealogists cannot find marriage records from the late 19th century on, the possibility of an elopement is strong.  Family history researchers should consider looking for marriage records in popular regional areas that catered to "quickie marriages." 

In the early 20th century, it was considered stylish to run away and get married but still return with a mention in the paper! 

 

 

 

 

 

Named for a small Scottish town that is famous for quick and easy marriages, "Gretna Greens" are favored marriage places with reputations for having fewer marriage restrictions. The United States has dozens of towns and cities that are famous for helping couples ease the restrictions on marriage. FamilySearch has a Gretna Greens research wiki on this topic. 

Couples seeking Gretna Greens:

  • want to marry younger
  • want to wait a shorter period before marrying
  • want to marry without parental consent
  • want to avoid blood tests
  • want less paper work
  • want a romantic place

Newspaper Wedding Announcements

Before the late 19th century, wedding descriptions in the newspaper were considered tacky.

Wedding announcements in newspapers didn't became popular until the 20th century. 

There is tremendous evidence of marriage in newspapers; however, depending on how the newspaper is accessed, it can be very difficult to search if you are wading through unindexed microfilm. It's important for genealogists to gather as much information as possible: dates, names, places!  

Some fee-based historical digital newspaper collections capture marriage announcements as a searchable field! Ask a librarian to help finding indexed newspaper collections through vendors like NewsBank and ProQuest.  

Was there even a groom?
Was there even a groom there? 

Early-mid 20th-century wedding announcements were written in the spirit of romantic love, lucky brides, etc. They were typically submitted by the bride's family and focused on the bride, the wedding decor and the ideal image of a happy couple.  Newspapers would usually only print announcements for first marriages.  

Contemporary announcements picture the bride and the groom and highlight accomplishments of the couple.

In the early to mid 20th century, announcements of weddings between people from upper and middle classes indicated a close proximity to high school or college graduation. 

Contemporary announcements picture the bride and the groom and highlight accomplishments of the couple.