By Amanda Sullivan
Marriage Records are an essential part of family history research and are one of the best ways to find the ever-elusive maiden name of a woman – as well as parents’ names, ages and occupations, residence and religious beliefs. If you have not found such a record for every married couple in your tree, you are missing out.
As FamilySearch notes, marriage records were some of the earliest documents to be recorded in many U.S. states. Across the world this can also be true since marriage is such a vitally important step in a person’s personal, social and religious life.
There is also a great deal of variation in potential records of marriage, thanks to the process involved in such a union.
There are often several documents produced when a marriage takes place. These may have included some type of intention of marriage, such as a marriage bond, consent papers, contracts or settlements, licenses and applications of marriage, and records of marriage, such as a marriage certificate and a marriage return recorded in a register. FamilySearch Vital Records Handout
This fact gives us many options to look for and reminds us to branch out beyond the typical search for only a marriage certificate.
Sometimes it can be quite simple to locate a marriage record and all we have to do is take some straightforward steps online. Other times, we may have to do some more serious (or offline) research. Start by writing down what you know (names, dates, locations) and use these tidbits in your searches. If you don’t have enough information to begin your search for a certificate or other marriage record, take the time to find out what you can from previously discovered records first.
The following are details you might discover in a marriage record and, therefore, are the same details you will want to have on hand when searching. Obviously, you won’t have all of these facts already, but knowing at least some will help you in your search:
- Full name of each person in the union, including the maiden name of the woman
- Birth dates or estimated ages
- Parents’ names
- Location of residence at time of marriage
- Location of nearest town/courthouse where someone might have chosen to file for a licence
- Religion, house of worship, officiant
- Occupations of persons to be married and occupations of parents
- Marital status at time of marriage (widowed, divorced etc)
- Family members or neighbors that may have acted as witnesses
Once you have written down some key details you can begin your search by digging through large sites that you already have access to, such as FamilySearch (free), Ancestry or MyHeritage. It may be that you come across the record very quickly. Remember to be flexible with names and dates in your searches for the best result. Women are usually listed by their maiden names on these records, but not always.
If you don’t find the record in a quick search, take the time to locate a single collection that may contain the record and search that more thoroughly. By narrowing your search down to one target collection (by location and date) you will likely have much better luck. Find help for this strategy in this article.
If you still can not locate a marriage record this way you will need to start branching out. The tips below will help you find elusive marriage records and/or the details they typically contain.
And remember to never settle for an index. In the digital age, it is easy to rely on what is readily available online, but just because Ancestry found a transcription or index does not mean that we have gathered all of the information there is. Unless there is an image of the original license or certificate, there is no way to know what was left out. For this reason it is vital that you seek out the original records whenever possible. Help for finding original records after locating an index on Ancestry can be found here.
5 Strategies for Locating Marriage Records
Strategy 1: Look Close to Home
One of the simplest ways to find a marriage record is to start within your own family. Your parents and grandparents most likely have copies of their own marriage certificate, and may also have saved records from deceased relatives.
Even if the official record was never saved after death, other clues may survive. Many relatives save the invitations or wedding favors in a box of keepsakes. You may be lucky and find that a photograph has the date written on the back, or that a scrapbook page dedicated to the wedding includes the invitation, wedding announcement, save-the-date, or the date and place of the wedding written on the page.
If you do come across these gems take the time to digitize them.
Strategy 2: Contact the State Where Your Ancestor Was Married
If you are looking for a marriage record from the last 150 years or so in the U.S. you may be able to find an official marriage certificate or license. Many states provide access to these records online, or a way to order one. Some states, like Minnesota, even provide a searchable index and a way to order in just a few steps.
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To find out where vital records are held be sure to go to the website of the state (or country) where the wedding took place. There you will find information about who can purchase a copy of the certificate and how much it will cost.
Oftentimes it is only the children or grandchildren who can order a certified copy of vital records, but uncertified copies are often available to anyone for the purpose of research. Remember that all states have different rules about when a record can be made available for privacy reasons. Some are available immediately and others are kept secret for some time.
When filing a request for a record (when you don’t know the exact details, certificate or license number) give an approximate range of dates and possible “misspellings” of names to help the person searching for you. Just remember to narrow down the search as much as possible and be courteous. Government clerks are not your personal research assistant and they will only search exactly the names and dates you give.
The cost for such a search, or ordering a copy of a known record, varies by location.
- See this guide to finding records by U.S. state for help.
- If you are searching internationally you may find help in these articles.
Strategy 3: Contact the Church Where Your Ancestors Were Married
A majority of marriages take place within a religious institution. If you know exactly which Church/Temple/Mosque your relatives were married in, you can request a search of their records. Even if you have an official copy of the marriage license filed with the courthouse, the religious documentation may contain different information.
If you know the name of the church, you can easily contact their office or go to their website to find out about their procedure for genealogical inquiries. Many ask for a small donation in return for the research, much like filing a request with the state/local government.
Sometimes churches close down. What then? Find a nearby church of the same denomination and ask where the records may be held.
Websites may also contain this information. As an example, in the case of Catholic records, check the Archdiocese website for information. For instance, St. Gabriel’s Church on 37th St. in Manhattan closed down to make room for the Midtown Tunnel, but the Archdiocese of New York keeps a spreadsheet of where all records from closed, open, and merged catholic churches in New York are kept. St. Gabriel’s records are now with Our Savior on 38th St. A link to the list of Parishes in New York can be found here.
Strategy 4: Check the Census and Newspapers
Remember that legal and religious records are not the only way unions were documented. You can find a great deal of information in local newspapers and censuses. Every recent census released to us so far has inquired whether the named person is married, single, divorced, or widowed.
Some offer a few more clues, such as the 1930 census asking for age at first marriage, the 1910 census for the number of years of present marriage, and the 1900 census asking for the number of years married. To discover which census contains what information see the Family History Daily census guide.
If your family was well-to-do, marriage or engagement announcements in the local newspaper could offer more information than you would know what to do with. Not only do some announcements cover who was married, when, and where, but sometimes go into detail about what everyone on the guest list was wearing. Even families of moderate means would sometimes advertise the impending or recent nuptials of their child.
Newspapers can also offer more about your relatives’ marriages than just names and dates. One of my recent newspaper searches revealed that my great grandmother lied when she married my great grandfather. Not only was she married before (while her marriage license says otherwise), but she was still legally married. Their time in appellate court was in the papers because it raised the question “How long does an abandoned wife need to look for her husband before he is assumed dead?” The series of articles related to my great grandparents gave information about not only when they were married, but when my great grandmother married the first time.
Strategy 5: Search “Non-traditional” Sources
Clues about marital status aren’t limited to the usual places. Sometimes searches bring up evidence of divorce before anything else. A divorce is a definite clue that a marriage took place because you can’t have one unless you were, indeed, married. If you happened to find a record of a divorce, check to see if the date of marriage was included.
Military records are as varied as they are numerous and can provide clues into your ancestor’s life. Pension records will name a spouse if married. There may also be documents to request special leave to get married. If paystubs were kept, a change in housing allowance or dependency status could narrow down the search for marriage to a single month. The longer your relative was in the service, the more insight into his/her life you may find in the record.
Other vital records could hold clues to marriage as well. One example of this is birth records. FamilySearch has numerous images of hand-written civil registration records from Puerto Rico. I love these records because they often include more than one generation and so much information.
When two people got married after they already had a child, there would sometimes be a note in the margin of the birth record saying that the child was legitimized by the marriage of his/her parents on this date.
Obituaries and death records will usually mention the most recent spouse, dead or alive. They may even have the date of marriage. Tombstones of married couples also may have a marriage date inscribed.
Lastly, journals and diaries, depending on who wrote them, are a fairly accurate source of information. Big to-do’s such as weddings were often mentioned in detail since there are lots of emotions that surface leading up to, and during, the event. Not only would there be clues about the wedding itself, but perhaps some distant cousins as well. So if you’re lucky enough to have a diary or journal as evidence, congratulations!
The important thing to remember is that creativity and flexibility is key. Decide what you want to know and look everywhere you possibly can to find it. Details about a marriage can provide a great deal of depth and new insights in your research – the time it take you to find these details will be well worth it.
You may also like:
- How to Find a Cause of Death When You Don’t Have a Death Certificate for Your Ancestor
- Are You Making the Direct-Line Mistake in Your Family Tree?
Amanda Sullivan is a graduate of Penn State University with a Bachelor of Science in Music Education. She has spent years doing family research for her own enjoyment and compiling family histories as gifts for her nieces, nephews, and her two beautiful daughters.
Image: “Buffalo, New York. At the wedding of Cedelia Wrazen and Bronislaus Nowak, who are of Polish descent. They are employed at Ross Heater, makers of condensers for the Navy. He is temporarily deferred from the Army due to essential work. They apologized for the smallness of the wedding, blamed it on rationing of food, talked of how their parents’ weddings had lasted for four days of feasting.” May 1943. Library of Congress.