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| Vital Records
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|Overview of Vital Records|
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The registering of marriages in the United States is a quasi-religious, quasi-legal social function that has been influenced by religious belief, custom, and English law since the earliest colonial settlements. The effective researcher needs a complete understanding of the jurisdictions responsible for maintaining these records, the types of records kept by each jurisdiction, the periods in which various types of records were maintained, the circumstances peculiar to each colony and state that created the necessity for registering marriages, and the factors that produced changes in these registrations.
Complicating matters is the fact that the United States, unlike England and some European countries, does not have a national registration program. Instead, marriage registration is the responsibility of the individual states. Furthermore, marriage registration was never uniformly implemented among the states. Prior to state registration requirements, towns in New England and counties in the remainder of the nation were the primary jurisdictions charged with maintaining marriage records. Thus, records can ordinarily be found dating from when a town or county was created. Some states, however, such as Pennsylvania and South Carolina, have not required subordinate jurisdictions to keep marriage records until more recent times.
Marriage records in the United States have been, and in some cases still are, kept by churches, ministers, justices of the peace, state boards of health, colonial governors, military personnel, and local (county and town) governments.
State Boards of Health/Bureaus of Vital Statistics
The most important recordkeeping agencies for marriages in the United States today are the state boards of health or bureaus of vital statistics (or their equivalents). Even though these agencies are primarily state bodies, large cities usually have their own registries. However, few states had them until after 1850. Vermont (1770) and Washington, D.C. (1811) were the first to form them; Colorado (1968) was the last. Even when the requirement existed, the laws were seldom enforced; consequently, many genealogists are reluctant to spend the time necessary to search for marriage records on file with these agencies for early periods. However, residents of heavily populated cities often are not mentioned in local histories or biographical publications. Quite often they can be found only in major record sources. Thus, it is imperative to search for whatever records may exist. The Vital Records Information website gives dates of registration and the cost or procedure for ordering vital records from each state. Similar information is available from The National Center for Health Statistics which publishes Where to Write for Vital Records—Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/howto/w2w/w2welcom.htm. This publication may be downloaded and saved on your personal computer.
Many of the earliest marriage records were kept by the offices of colonial governors. While not numerous, many of these records are still in existence, usually in state archives. Some of these records are in print or available on CD-ROM. Many have been indexed online, such as “North Carolina Marriage Records Index 1741–2000” available at Ancestry.com.
Colonial, state, and federal military officers and ships’ officers (military and civilian) often performed marriages and recorded them in ships’ logs, daybooks, and private journals. Those records can be found among military records maintained by the federal government and in historical societies, libraries, and museums.
Town and County Governments
Town clerks in New England and county clerks elsewhere have been responsible for registering most marriages in the United States. Marriage records were kept in New England beginning in the 1600s and in the South beginning in the 1700s. Clerks issued documents granting permission for a couple to marry, and then they received notification that the ceremony had taken place from the ministers and justices of the peace in the towns or counties.
There is little uniformity in the marriage record-keeping practices among the states. Researchers should thus become familiar with the laws and customs of each area and time period to be researched. Most jurisdictions maintained more than one form of document, and the information required on different documents often varied. For example, Kentucky marriage registers usually include the names of the bride and groom, the date and place of the marriage, and the officiating authority. The marriage license, issued as a separate record for the same couple, could also include residence, age, place of birth, names of parents, and occupation.
Churches were among the earliest keepers of marriage records. By 1640, Virginia and Massachusetts had passed laws requiring ministers to provide records of the marriages they performed to civil officials in the county or parish. Records of marriages in areas that did not require periodic reporting remained with the minister or the church.
Many churches, especially in the frontier areas, did not keep extensive records, and many records have been lost or destroyed. New England churches, Quaker Monthly Meetings, and the German churches kept and have preserved the most complete records.
Justices of the Peace
Most states have authorized the election or appointment of justices of the peace who can perform marriages. Like ministers, justices have also been required to submit records of the marriages they performed to civil authorities. Justices also maintained their own registers, often in the personal account books in which they recorded the fees paid. These sometimes contain marriage and other genealogical information not forwarded to the civil authorities and should not be overlooked by the researcher, even when civil records are available. Justices’ registers can be found in the care of county clerks, local historical societies, libraries, and descendants of the justices themselves. Several are on microfilm at the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), and some have been published by local genealogical societies.
Types of Marriage Records
The minimum legal age for marriage varies from one place to another. While some jurisdictions have required consent regardless of age, most demanded consent affidavits from a parent or legal guardian only for those under the minimum age—usually twenty-one for males, eighteen for females. Sometimes a parent or guardian appeared with the underage person and gave verbal permission. The record will show that the parent was present and was known to the clerk but may not record the name. A detailed, printed consent form was part of the marriage license in a few localities.
The father of the underage person usually gave consent, especially in the South. When a mother has given consent, the father was likely deceased. When both parents were deceased, the legal guardian granted permission to marry. If the guardian is related to the person getting married, their relationship may be stated.
The attached image is an application for a marriage license by David Hoard for Chester B. Hoard and Martha S. Huffman in Medina County, Ohio. In it, David Hoard states that he is Chester B. Hoard’s guardian and gives his consent to the marriage.
Consent documents are found in town and county jurisdictions throughout the United States, but they are more numerous in the South and former frontier regions, where early marriages were encouraged.
Declarations of Intent
Declarations of intent to marry have been required in one form or another in all colonies and states from colonial times. The practice may have been abandoned in a particular place for a period of time, only to be reinstated later. There are many types of declarations of intent, both written and oral.
The publishing of banns was a church custom during the colonial and later periods. Banns were usually read in church on three consecutive Sundays (sometimes during public meetings); in some areas they were posted in public places as well. Their purpose was to give local residents the opportunity to state their objections to a marriage. Delaware and Ohio considered the publication of banns equivalent to a license to about 1898. The following is a sample of what might be included in a published banns:
- I publishe [sic] the Banns of Marriage between Robert Preston of New Haven and Priscilla Fuller of Milford. If any known cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the 1st time asking.
- Daniel Stout, Reverend.
These records were similar to banns but were filed with the town or county clerk. Intentions include the names and places of residence of the prospective bride and groom and the date the intention was filed. Unlike banns, intentions were not generally read aloud but were posted in public places for a prescribed period of time. As with banns, intentions were to give others the opportunity to voice objections to the union. Many intentions filed in New England have been published in book form or are online. Notably, New England Historic Genealogical Society offers both indexes and records for various years and places in Massachusetts at its website.
Marriage bonds were not required by all colonies or states but have been common in the South. Bonds were posted prior to the issuing of the required marriage license in some states and were the sole documents required in others. Bonds were posted by the groom alone or with a second person, usually the father or the brother of the bride, to defray the costs of litigation in the event the marriage was nullified.
Bonds were posted in the jurisdiction where the marriage was to take place, often in the bride’s home county. These bonds, the only marriage records maintained in some jurisdictions, were usually annotated with the marriage date after the ceremony. It was rare for a marriage not to take place within a few days of the posting of the bond, even though many bonds do not bear the annotation. Although the missing information could mean that the marriage did not take place, more often it reflects poor record keeping or failure of the justice or minister to report the marriage to local officials.
Marriage bonds were required in North Carolina from 1741 to 1868. The bonds have since been placed in the custody of the North Carolina State Archives. The Archives has compiled two master name indexes, one to brides and one to grooms. The index is available at the Archives.
The attached image is an example of a bond typically found in the South.
Marriage contracts are relatively uncommon. They were usually drawn up when one or both parties was wealthy or might inherit a substantial estate, and wished to protect the inheritance rights of heirs.
Marriage contracts have also been used in second marriages. Property left to a widow by her first husband could be protected with a marriage contract. Such documents guarantee the distribution of property to the children of the first husband. Without such a contract, the property inherited at the death of the first husband became the property of the second husband at the time of marriage. He could dispose of that property as he desired, without provision for his stepchildren. Marriage contracts are recorded among marriage records or are filed with court records or deeds.
Marriage contracts were widely used in Louisiana during the colonial period. Under civil law, the French and Spanish used formal marriage contracts to protect their property, regardless of their social position or wealth. These documents are of unequaled value in genealogical research because they list extended family relationships and often the place of origin of the immigrant ancestor. The following contract between Charles de Lavergne and Marie Joseph Carriere illustrates the superb detail of the documents.
- June 16, 1739
- CHARLES de LAVERGNE, Lieutenant on half-pay, of this Province of Louisiana, son of Mr. PIERRE de LAVERGNE, Counsellor at Chatelet of Parish, and of Dame ELIZABETH BILLET his father and mother, a native of parish, Parish of St. Eustache
- Demoiselle MARIE JOSEPH CARRIERE, minor daughter of the deceased Sieur ANDRE CARRIERE and of Dame MARGUERITTE HARLUT her father and mother, a native of Mobile, Bishopric of Quebec. The named Dame MARGUERITTE HARLUT now wife of Sieur LOUIS TIXERRANT being present.
- Consenting for the minor being Sieur JOSEPH CARRIERE her uncle and tutor.
- Consenting on the part of the named Sieur de LAVERGNE, Mr. de BIENVILLE, Chevalier of the Royal and Military order of St. Louis, Governor of this Province, of Louisiana, Mr. de SALMON, Commissioner of the Marines of this Province and Madame his wife, Mr. DIRON DARTAGUETTE, Chevalier of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis, Commandant at Mobile, Mr. BELLUGA Captain of the King’s vessel, Mr. DeVILLER FRANSSURE, Lieutenant of the King’s vessel, presently of this Colony, his friends and friends of his deceased parents.
- And for the named Demoiselle MARIE JOSEPH CARRIERE, Sieur and Dame TIXERRANT her step-father and her mother, Sieur JOSEPH CARRIERE her uncle and tutor, Sieur JACQUES CARRIERE also her uncle, Dame FRANCOISE JALOT widow CARRIERE, Aunt of Demoiselle MARIE MARGUERITTE CARRIERE, her sister, Sieur LOUIS TIXERRANT her brother, Mr. and Madame de LIVAUDAIS her cousin, Mr. the Chevalier de LOWBOY, of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis, Captain of the Infantry of the Marines, Mr. D’AUTHERIVE, Chevalier of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis, Mr. de BELISLE, Mr. BOBE DESCLOSEAUX, comptroller of the Marines, Mr. DUBREUIL VILLARS, contractor for the King’s fortifications in this colony.
- This marriage to be solemnized in the Holy Roman Apostolic Catholic Church.
- This document collated and entered in the minutes of the Royal Notary, at New Orleans on the 17 of June of 1768. /s/ Garic, Notary.1
Marriage licenses are the most common marriage records in the United States. They are issued by the appropriate authority prior to the marriage ceremony, and they have come to replace the posting of banns and intentions. Marriage licenses, which grant permission for a marriage to be performed, are returned to civil authorities after the ceremony.
Applications for marriage licenses have been required in some jurisdictions in addition to or in place of bonds. Applications are often filled out by both the bride and groom and typically contain a large amount of genealogical information. They may list the full names of the bride and groom, their residences, races, ages, dates and places of birth, previous marriages, occupations, and their parents’ names, places of birth (state or country), and occupations. Recent laws require health certificates attesting to the absence of diseases that could be passed on to children.
For most locations, marriage license applications can be found for periods beginning after the Civil War. Indiana, Wisconsin, and Utah counties maintained them earlier. The application form does not include the marriage date.
Marriage licenses exist in varying forms. The attached image, a certified copy of a marriage license issued in the county in Illinois where the marriage took place, is much like licenses from most towns or counties. A standard form generally asks for the names of the bride and groom, their residence at the time of application, the date the marriage was performed, the date the license was issued, the place of the marriage, and the name of the person performing the marriage ceremony.
A license from Spencer County, Kentucky, illustrates the style of license used during earlier periods in the South. Note that the return after the ceremony is annotated at the bottom of the license in the minister’s handwriting. Certified copies of marriage records are certified to be correct, but there is a possibility of error in any typescript. It is best to request photocopies when you write a town or county clerk.
Marriage certificates are given to the couple after the ceremony is completed and are thus usually found among family records. There are exceptions, however. Figure 13-6 is from a volume of marriage certificates on file in Medina County, Ohio. These certificates, however, are similar to marriage licenses issued in other places. The bride and groom usually receive a marriage certificate for their family records containing similar historical information, signatures of witnesses, and so on.
Marriage Registers and Returns
Colonial and state governments have required that marriages performed within their jurisdictions be reported to civil authorities. The town or county clerk then compiles marriage registers, though these registers are rarely complete. Those who officiated at marriages in rural areas were often reluctant to travel the distances required to comply with the law. Sometimes, also, ministers’ records were lost or destroyed before the marriages were properly reported. Itinerant preachers, who crossed jurisdictional boundaries, rarely registered marriages at all. Couples sometimes obtained a license, filed a bond, or made applications in one jurisdiction and then married in another, but ministers filed returns only in their own counties. Still, marriage returns are the only documents that provide evidence that the marriage actually took place.
Marriage registers differ from one jurisdiction to another. Some required only the names of the couple and the date of the marriage. Registers are normally arranged in chronological order by year, though there can be overlap in registers that were infrequently updated. The Spencer County, Kentucky, marriage register shown in figure 13-7 provides the date of marriage, names of the parties, name of the person who performed the marriage, the place of marriage, the names of witnesses, and the certificate number.
Some registers exist in the absence of licenses. This is true for registers in Virginia and West Virginia after 1853, which provide the marriage date, minister, names of the parties, their ages, places of birth, residences, parents, and occupations. Many of these registers have been transcribed.
Most marriage registers are compiled from written returns submitted by ministers and justices. The lists are copied into the register by a clerk and are thus subject to transcription errors. Figure 13-8 is from the returns register of Daviess County, Kentucky.
Not all marriage returns were entered into a register. Some were simply noted on the license or bond; others were written on scraps of paper filed loosely in the clerk’s office, either in alphabetical order or by the first letter of the groom’s surname. Most loose returns have been microfilmed for easier use.
Locating Marriage Records
Marriage records were issued and maintained by town and county jurisdictions before state registration was established. Marriage records are usually indexed by the surname of the groom, but a few jurisdictions have compiled cross-indexes to the maiden name of the bride. Some states are collecting these early marriage records from the local jurisdictions—but because no comprehensive list of these repositories exists, you must write to the town or county first. Addresses, including zip codes, for every county and town clerk are in the current edition of Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.2
Marriage indexes (and some digitized images) are online for many counties and at least one state has combined county indexes into a statewide index. The Illinois Statewide Marriage Index contains Illinois county marriage records dated 1763–1900 and can be searched at http://www.sos.state.il.us/GenealogyMWeb/marrsrch.html.
Searchable Marriage Record Databases Online includes a list of statewide marriage indexes online. Hundreds of websites feature collections of county marriage records; currently the USGenWeb Project houses most of them at Rootsweb.com. Search the Web routinely for new statewide and county databases.
Birth, Marriage, and Death Records on CD-ROM lists marriage (along with some birth and death) records that have been compiled and published on CD-ROM. The table includes remarks on the content and extent of coverage.
A project of FamilySearch.org and FamilySearch Indexing to digitize the microfilmed vital records held in the Granite Mountain Records Vault began in the United States with the records of the state of Georgia. The project will eventually include vital records from the entire collection. The first major record sets to be published on FamilySearch.org will include vital records from North and South America, areas of the Pacific, and the British Isles.
Genealogical Society of Utah
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, houses millions of sources, including microfilmed records from most of the United States. The collection is available in its entirety in Salt Lake City, but copies of the microfilms can be obtained through Family History Centers located throughout the United States (see appendix vii, “The LDS Family History Library,” for locations). This collection includes thousands of original marriage registers and collections of bonds, consents, licenses, and applications. Many names and dates have been extracted from the microfilmed collection and placed in the International Genealogical Index which may be accessed at the Library, its centers, or online. There are also lists of statewide marriage indexes and records available through the Family History Library.
The Library has, in book or manuscript form, marriage entries that have been transcribed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or Work Projects Administration (WPA). The transcripts often have cross-indexes to brides, annotations from ministers’ journals and account books, newspaper announcements, and even the personal knowledge of the compiler. For these and other transcripts, it is always wise to check the original records when they are available.
Writing for Marriage Records
Researchers who cannot use the Family History Library’s collection or online sources, can write to town or county record custodians. For a fee, clerks will search the local records and send a copy of the information requested. Because of recently passed privacy laws, state boards of vital records and bureaus of vital statistics may require you to file a form stating your relationship to the bride and groom and the purpose of the request, but they will usually provide records for family history purposes.
Marriage records can be obtained from numerous sources within a county. Most counties registered marriages in marriage registers, but some filings may be found in court records and deed books. Common law marriages, if referred to at all, would be found in court records, which are rarely indexed (unlike deed books) and require substantial research time. However, they should not be overlooked.
Family records, such as family Bibles, journals, diaries, and personal histories, often include marriage documents or references to marriages. Certificates, contracts, and divorce records can also be found in personal collections. Some family records have been donated to local historical societies, libraries, universities, or state archives. Manuscripts of unpublished family histories contain valuable genealogical information and are also found in these kinds of libraries, all of which usually have guides to their manuscript collections.
The number of printed volumes of marriage records grows daily as genealogy enthusiasts continue to make contributions to the field. These volumes are available through libraries, historical and genealogical societies, booksellers, publishers, and private distributors. They vary in usefulness. Some collections improve upon a poor original record by adding details about a couple and their families. However, the quality of such a volume always depends on the skill of the transcriber in reading illegible handwriting and damaged records. Because a transcribed copy rarely includes all the information contained in the original record, you should also look at the original entry whenever possible.
The following is an example of the alphabetized and printed marriage records kept by two brothers who were justices of the peace in Washington County, Pennsylvania: Squires Isaac and Joseph F. Mayes. They married more than 3,000 couples, most of whom eloped to the Mayes’ border town from West Virginia and Ohio because Pennsylvania did not require a marriage license.
- DEGARMO, MARTHA
- to John Stiger
- both of Triadelphia,
- Ohio Co., WV
- 14 January 1871
- DEGARMO, MARTHA E.
- to Eli Johnston
- both of Ohio Co., WV
- 17 June 1882
- DELANEY, JONATHAN
- of Wheeling, Ohio Co., WV
- to Rosabella Faulkner
- of Belton, Marshall Co., WV
- 5 November 1865
- DELANY, William C.
- to Mary Virginia Crow
- both of Wheeling, Ohio Co., (W)VA
- 24 August 18623
Genealogical periodicals published by state and county genealogical societies also include marriage records. You can find large collections of these periodicals in many local libraries, or you can receive your own copies of such publications by joining the societies.
Newspapers have printed marriage announcements and engagements for decades. These articles often contain such information as the names of the parents of the bride and groom, place of residence after the marriage, and names of those in attendance at the wedding.
Special Problems Encountered When Using Marriage Records
An estimated thirty percent of the marriage records in this country are incomplete. Many marriage returns were never submitted to civil authorities, and countless others have been lost. Hamilton County, Ohio, which recorded marriages for Cincinnati, is an interesting example. Many records were lost in a courthouse fire. Years later the WPA copied those that survived, combining applications, licenses, and returns and then indexing them. Local genealogists reconstructed some from ministers’ daybooks, original certificates, and newspaper accounts. The DAR also collected marriage records from family and local sources. Because each of these collections came from different sources, the researcher must check them all; even so, some marriages will not have been recorded. Careful checking of all versions becomes important upon considering that Cincinnati, like many American cities, was a “Gretna Green” (a no-questions-asked marriage locale in Scotland) for couples from up and down the Ohio River and from a wide circle of counties in Indiana and Kentucky, as well as Ohio. Therefore, if there is no record in the nearby county where a couple may have lived, chances are good that the entry may be found among the Cincinnati marriage records, even though they are incomplete.
Marriage records are often inaccurate. Brides and grooms have sometimes deliberately provided falsified information. To reduce their workloads, clerks often entered the date of the marriage at the time the license was issued instead of waiting for the return. Thus, marriage information should be compared with other facts known about an individual. Additional research may be necessary to resolve discrepancies.
Spelling variants are also a problem in marriage records. Many clerks did not ask couples how their names were spelled but wrote them based on their pronunciation instead. All possible spellings of a surname should be checked before assuming that a couple is not in a given record.
Many marriage records are virtually illegible due to faded entries, damaged ledger books, poor handwriting, and poorly microfilmed originals. Published marriage records can assist in clarifying unreadable entries. If poor microfilming is the problem, contact the county or town and request a photocopy or certified copy of the original. Sometimes more than one type of marriage record can be obtained.
If a marriage record is not on file for an ancestor, other records can reveal an approximate date of marriage. The 1900 and 1910 U.S. Federal Censuses list the number of years a couple had been married. The 1930 U.S. Federal Census shows marital condition and age at first marriage. The marriage date may be calculated from any or all these entries. The 1910 Civil War pension application files contain marriage information. If a veteran’s widow filed for a pension, she had to produce proof of the marriage by obtaining an affidavit from the appropriate minister or civil authorities, supplying a copy of the marriage certificate, or sending sworn statements from persons who could testify to the marriage date and place.