Tying the Knot: Family History in Marriage Records

Marriage records usually remind us of the recent documents created by the state boards of health or bureaus of vital statistics. These documents often contain detailed information about the couple and their parents; whether the bride and groom have previously been married, their places of birth and current residence, their occupations, their parents' names and birth places, and the couple's signatures.

However, this kind of detailed record is generally found only at the state level, and most states did not begin statewide recording of vital records until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. New Hampshire (1640), Vermont (1770), and Washington D.C. (1811) were the first to institute these registries, and Colorado (1968) was the last. In earlier times, the records were less descriptive. If the state did not require periodic reporting, the records may have remained with the minister or the church. Large cities usually had their own registries, and their records often were begun long before the state required such record keeping.

Prior to state recording, many counties kept records of the marriages which took place within their jurisdiction, a process which usually began at or shortly after the county was created. Ancestry's Red Book lists the date each county began record keeping and the address to write for copies of documents. Compliance with the registration requirement varied greatly, however. It was often not considered important enough to make along trip to the county seat to register a marriage, and some marriage records were lost simply because they were forgotten or misplaced between the time of the event and the next time the minister was at the county seat.

County marriage records take several forms. The actual marriage records were completed and returned after the ceremony. These records may be found in separate marriage books or interspersed with other items in the court records or town minute books. Other forms of county marriage records include written marriage intentions and licenses filed with the town or county clerk, similar to our present-day marriage licenses; declarations of intent, such as church banns: consent affidavits from parents or guardians for brides and grooms who were underage; and bonds posted by the groom or a male relative or friend.

To find a marriage recorded at the county level, it is important to know which office had jurisdiction over marriage proceedings at the time. Besides searching that office's records, consider more unusual records, such as the personal account book of a justice of the peace who failed to forward all of his marriages to the civil authorities; and common law marriages mentioned only in court records. Keep in mind that most marriage registers are compiled from written returns submitted by ministers and justices. Registers and county marriage indexes may have errors and omissions, so obtain a copy of the original record if it is still available.

Early in U.S. history, marriages were performed by clergymen who may or may not have been the heads of established churches. Many records found in church books have been published either as records for a particular church or in compiled early marriage indexes for the state. Often, however, marriages were recorded only in the clergyman's diary or personal record book, and some records were part of the baptismal records since baptisms were sometimes considered more important to record.

If you don't find the marriage record in published records, search creatively. Marriage contracts, while uncommon, are sometimes found in county records or with deeds. In large cities, notices of marriage were sometimes published in the local newspaper. The DAR often collected marriage records from family and local sources, especially in areas where courthouse records burned; these records are often found in the local library or genealogical society. These sources may produce an elusive marriage record!

Kathi Sittner has been a genealogical researcher for twenty-five years. She currently does various research projects for clients.