“Love & Marriage: A Genealogical Look,”

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Love & Marriage: A Genealogical Look,” by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

Genealogists spend an immense amount of time searching for marriage records–not necessarily to prove their ancestors were legally married and that their children were legitimate but to ascertain the maiden name of their female ancestors, which in turn will enable them to extend the pedigree.

The first place to hunt for a marriage record is in the courthouse of the county where the couple was living at the time; or if they resided in different localities, start the search in the bride’s county of residence. The customary publication of marriage banns that was used in the old countries to notify family, friends, and neighbors about an impending marriage did not work among the widely dispersed settlements in America. Other means had to be found to spread the word. Historians claim that is why the marriage license, issued by the county clerk, was created.

Few of us are able to find the marriage records for all of our ancestors. Some will never be found due to courthouse disasters or lost records, or simply because they were never recorded by an itinerant preacher who might have lost them from his saddlebags as he forded a river on horseback. Some simply do not exist.

Look for a certified copy of the marriage record issued by the county or city vital records custodian, in church records, and for witnesses who were present at the time of the ceremony. You will often find the latter in the applications for military pensions. Family records (Bibles, diaries, journals, naturalization papers, etc.) are also popular places to find marriage information. Probate records–where you might find wills, petitions, decrees of distribution, and agreements of heirs–are another source. You might even need to search civil court records. A lawsuit might disclose marriage relationships, especially those in which the executors or administrators had to establish legitimacy of children and their right to inherit.

U.S. federal census records after 1850 are a valuable source for circumstantial evidence of a marriage, but be careful about leaping to conclusions. Men often married women of the same given name. Cemetery records can be helpful, and don’t forget to check old newspapers for wedding announcements and anniversaries, city directories, voting registers, funeral records, and church membership rolls.

In early America women married about the age of 20 to 23, though the age tended to drop somewhat in succeeding generations and brides were often a bit younger in particular localities. Women usually spent up to 20 years bearing children, and most of their adult life was spent raising them. While there were some large families–10 to 15 children–the average number of children was 6 or 7. Many children died in infancy or were lost to various childhood diseases.

The death rate in those times was high for husbands and wives too. Newlyweds had only a one-in-three chance of living together 10 years. It is not uncommon to find an ancestor marrying three or four times. A woman needed a husband to provide for and protect her and the children, and a man needed a wife to take care of his young children and to look after the home and all its chores.

For most of our ancestors, marriage was a partnership in which both labored long and hard to carve out a new home and give their children far more than they ever had. Each of these couples hanging upon your family tree has a special story–just waiting to be researched and told.

Speaking of Marriage Records

Over the years scores of compilers have ventured into courthouses to transcribe and index marriage records from bonds, licenses, wills, deeds, baptismal records, and so forth. For their efforts these genealogists have usually seen their transcriptions published in book form, and those publications have saved researchers from spending countless time and expense to comb through the same records.

Following is a list of  published collections of marriage records. They represent only a small fraction of the marriage records in our catalog–we’ve published many marriage records in vital records collections, church records, and so on. Nevertheless, they do represent a good cross-section of American marriage records in our catalog. Not only that, one or more of them just might contain the marriage entry you are looking for!


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