A couple receives a marriage certificate after their wedding ceremony. It's the official proof of their marriage, sometimes appended to the marriage license, and is also filed with the local vital records office. Marriage certificates are useful for genealogists because they include important facts like the wedding date and location, bride and groom's names, and sometimes their parents' names. They're a key part of your family story.
Types of Marriage Records
Marriage records come in many stripes depending on the time and place.
For centuries, marriage was a private or religious event, so historic marriage documents often relate to the church. Civil records became more common in the 19th century.
Before the wedding, couples get a marriage license, which ensures they have a legal right to marry. That is, that they are of age and unmarried. This civil document is the most common marriage record and typically has details about the couple and their families, such as their parents' names and the wedding date.
A marriage certificate proves the couple is legally wed and is signed by the couple and the officiant. Certificates vary by state, but they can be quite detailed. This Vermont marriage certificate from 1959 found on Ancestry®, for instance, included the bride and groom’s addresses, occupations, parents' birthplaces, fathers' names, and mothers' maiden names. Some marriage certificates also name the witnesses.
Up until the 1800s in England and the U.S., a type of legal document known as a marriage bond was used. Most common in America in the southern and mid-Atlantic states, a marriage bond was a guarantee that there was no legal reason—such as one or both parties being too young or already being married—that the couple should not marry. If it turned out that the marriage was not legal, the groom would have to pay the stated penalty sum. In cases where at least one party was a minor, parental permission was needed, and sometimes a marriage bond was annotated by a parent indicating they granted permission.
Tips for Marriage Certificate and Marriage License Searches
If you use Ancestry® to learn more about your family story, here are some pointers as you start exploring marriage records.
Note the officiant's name on the marriage certificate.
You can check city directories for the cleric’s name to find the congregation they were affiliated with. This could lead you to religious records that include your ancestors..
Look up other marriage records in your family.
You might be looking for a specific family member’s marriage records. But remember that other records can help you in your search: A sibling's marriage certificate for instance might have helpful details not found on the specific marriage record you’re looking for.
Remember to check for records in marriage mills.
If their parents disapproved, your ancestors might have eloped somewhere with relaxed marriage laws. A hundred years ago in the U.S. a popular spot for quickie weddings in the Midwest was Crown Point, Indiana. Couples on the East Coast who were in a rush to wed headed to Elkton, Maryland. If you get even further back in your family tree, to English ancestors in the late 1700s and 1800s, you can look for marriage registers in Gretna, Green, Scotland—one of the best-known destinations for quick marriages.
Explore special collections.
Some marriage record collections on Ancestry® contain unique information. The North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 collection, for example, is particularly interesting for those researching their African American ancestry. In order for the pre-Emancipation unions of formerly enslaved people to be legally recognized by the state of North Carolina, couples were required to appear before the clerk of the county court or a justice of the peace to acknowledge their marital status. These records contain information including the names of the bride and groom, the year, and sometimes the month they began living together as man and wife.
The original record might have extra details like witnesses, occupations, and address. Ancestry provides source information, which tells you where the records are held.
Learn More With Other Vital Records
Other vital records on Ancestry, like birth and death records, can help you fill in information that is not provided by your ancestors' marriage certificates.
Birth certificates often have the parents' names, ages, jobs, and birth dates. Baptism records give the name of your ancestors' church. Death certificates list place and date of birth, place and date of death, and may also include the spouse's name.
Vital records like marriage certificates are more than mere documents. They're windows into your ancestors' lives, loves, and children, revealing meaningful parts of your family story.
Get Started on Your Journey of Discovery
There’s so much to learn about your family story. A search for a marriage certificate in our vast collection of marriage records is one place to start. Explore marriage records on Ancestry today.