It's Valentine’s Day and love is in the air. It’s one of my favorite holidays. The heart was the first shape I learned to draw. As a child, the Wedding section was my favorite part of the newspaper.
I poured over all the details in the engagement and wedding announcements. Not because I dreamed of my own wedding one day, but because I was fascinated by the details about the couple, their parents, the wedding, and their families. Those few paragraphs were family history portraits painted with words. They gave me a sense of the family’s history, values, and traditions. (My second favorite section was the Obituaries. Obviously, I was destined to be a genealogist.)
Yes, I love a good love story. I mean what’s not to love about love? And nothing symbolizes love more than a marriage certificate. But as a genealogist there’s a more important reason I love marriage records – they often contain more details than any other vital record.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, MyHeritage is offering FREE access to 446 million marriage records from February 14–18! Search all marriage records now!
The genealogical information contained in marriage records is invaluable for tracing your ancestors and discovering more about their lives. The details these documents contain varies over time and by location but generally, you can find the following:
Bride’s maiden name
Place of Birth
Parent’s names and birthplaces
Location of wedding
Marital status of bride and groom – single, widowed, divorced
You might be surprised to learn that the marriages of our ancestors generated lots of paperwork. Which is a dream come true for genealogists. When researching your family history, the most common types of marriage records you should look for include the following:
Banns are advance public notices or announcements of intended marriages. The tradition was rooted in England and Wales and early colonial settlements. Marriage banns were typically announced three Sunday’s in church preceding the marriage. Banns are still a legal requirement for the Church of England weddings.
Tip: Banns are not proof the marriage took place. But they do indicate the intention and provide clues (date and location) of where to look for marriage proof.
Example - You’re Never Too Old to Love!
This 1776 Marriage Bann from the St. Oswald parish in England is one of my favorites (thanks to Myko Clelland for sharing it some years back). The Bann announces the intended marriage between 105-year-old George Harding and 75-year-old Jane Darlington.
Generally seen in colonial times, and southern and mid-Atlantic states through the first half of the nineteenth century, a marriage bond was a monetary promise made by the groom that the intended marriage is legitimate and will take place on a certain date. If the marriage did not occur or was found illegitimate in any way- for example they are already married to someone else, underage, or cousins, the groom would pay a certain amount to the state, colony, or pre-determined male relative of the bride.
Tip: Bonds are not proof the marriage took place more are they a fee to be married. But they do indicate the intention and provide clues (date and location) of where to look for proof a marriage took place.
Example - Bound to Marry
In this 1886 marriage bond from Chowan County in North Carolina, Thomas Hageathy acknowledges he is legally bound to marry Esther Ann Bodan of Chowan County. If the marriage does not occur, he owes John Churchill Jr. the sum of $1,000. This bond provides important genealogical details such as the groom’s name, bride-to-be Esther’s maiden name, and the county in which she lived in Aug 1886.
In this 1885 Tennessee marriage bond, William Gordon acknowledges he has obtained a marriage license and promises to pay John Bridges the sum of $1,250 if he does not marry Ella Boulton. This bond provides details about the groom’s name, bride’s maiden name, and the location of Smith County, Tennessee.
Tip: Usually bonds were filed in the bride’s home county. A helpful clue when tracing your female ancestors.
Churches, town clerks, and counties often recorded marriages in a master register or book. These yearly registers generally only contain the names of the bride and groom, the date of the marriage, and the location.
Example - Scottish Sweethearts in Parish Registers
In this 1710 example from the Old Parish Register for East Kilpatrick, Scottland, the marriage bann of Agnes Henderson to John Alexander is recorded as proclaimed at the Barony Parish. With that as a clue, turning to the Barony Parish register records, we find confirmation of the marriage occurring in December 1711.
Similar to a register, marriage indexes contain only the briefest of details. Usually bride’s name, groom’s name, ages, marriage county, marriage date, and license number. They simply indicate when and where the marriage occurred.
Tip: Registers do not contain all the details that can be found in the actual marriage application or license. After locating your ancestors' marriage in an index, contact the clerk in the town, county, district or parish where the marriage took place to order a copy of the original document.
When I locate a marriage application, I hoot and do a happy dance! Why? Because they usually contain the most amount of genealogical information of all marriage records. It’s like hitting the mother lode. They usually contain groom’s name, bride’s maiden name, parent’s names, places of birth, race, residence, occupations, previous marriages, and children.
Tip: Beware of cold feet. Marriage applications are not proof of marriage. Although in many cases, the marriage certificate is also included.
Example - Third-time’s a Charm for Loveless?
Let’s hope it was for twice-divorced Henry Loveless and Betty Bonner. Their 1949 marriage application in Lucas County, Ohio, includes helpful details such as their residency in Detroit, parent’s names, date of birth, and place of birth. It also includes the name of Betty’s last husband, Mr. David Bonner.
Example: Legally Fit to be Married
This marriage application from Summit County, Ohio, between Terence Manfredi and Michele Mackey contains their names, places of birth, parent’s names, previous marriages, and children. Their occupations are also included; Terence is a musician and Michele works in security. They also certified by signing the application that they met all the legal requirements of marriage, including that they were legally divorced, no closer than second cousins and that “neither parties is an habitual drunkard, imbecile or insane, and is not under the influence of any intoxicating liquor or controlled substances.”
These are the most common type of modern marriage records available. Often the marriage license and certificate of marriage is in the same document. Like applications, marriage licenses contain a lot of helpful genealogical details such as names, birthdates, and parent’s names. They also contain additional information such as witnesses and who performed the ceremony.
Example: The Short and Sweet Marriage of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio
Although the marriage only lasted nine months, their marriage certificate from San Francisco, California, is a good example of the details you can find in a marriage certificate. It includes their names, ages, race, address, parent’s names, and places of birth. It also includes the date of the marriage as occurring on 14 Jan 1954 and their signatures. The witness is also a DiMaggio, a good genealogical clue if you are looking for additional family members.
Example: Some marriage certificates do not include the marriage application or license information. As in the case of Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor Todd’s 1959 marriage in Las Vegas, Nevada. But note a Rabbi performed the ceremony. An important religious detail of where to look for additional marriage records.
If you are lucky you might find your ancestor’s wedding announcement in the local paper. While not a legal document, newspaper wedding announcements can be used to determine a wedding date and location, clues that can be used to locate the courthouse where you can order records. And bonus– they often contain all the juicy details the legal documents don’t, such as what the bride wore, flowers used in her bouquet, who was the maid-of-honor, wedding guests, honeymoon plans, and if you are lucky enough even photos. Many papers are digitized and searchable on Newspapers.com.
RESEARCH TIP –
Perform an exhaustive search of all marriage record types.
Don’t stop when you find one marriage record, as you might be leaving important details behind in other marriage records.
In order to find marriage records, you first need to first know where and when the marriage occurred. If you don’t know where your ancestor was married, start with the location where their first child was born or the last place they lived according to census records and city directories. Civil marriage records are kept at the town, county, and state level. Marriage records can also be located in the Church, especially the further you go back in time. In England prior to 1837, Parish records were the only place to locate marriage records.
Once you determine where and when they were married, you can contact the clerk in the town, county, district or parish where the marriage took place. Many of them have websites with information on how to request marriage records and the cost.
Today, you can locate a variety of marriage records online but not all. Many states provide a marriage index, which gives you just enough information to so you can order a copy directly from the courthouse. Some states do not provide original copies due to privacy concerns.
The marriage records available online vary by state and date. For many states, you can order copies of marriage certificates through VitalCheck.com.
The following genealogy websites have searchable marriage collections:
Tip: Just because you don’t locate a marriage record doesn’t mean the marriage didn’t take place. Perhaps the original record was lost or destroyed. Other records that give marriage information include church records, newspapers, military records, census records, and death records.
I hope finding your ancestor’s marriage records leads to more discoveries and details about your own family’s history.