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One of the most basic and most important records you can locate about your family is a marriage record. Marriage records join two families together, often providing crucial details and verifying family connections. More than that, though, a marriage record documents an event of religious significance and legal consequence for many people. Because of this, marriage records were one of the earliest started and most widely kept records. This makes them a great resource for anyone seeking to learn more about her or his family.
Marriage Record Basics in the United States
While marriage records are one of the most basic genealogical records, starting your search for them can sometimes be challenging. That’s because there’s no one uniform marriage record formula. Instead, the records vary by what information they contain, who kept them, when they started, and where they can be found now. Fortunately, though, digitized records, indexes, and research tools have simplified the process of finding these important records.
Two of the most important types of marriage records are those kept by the government (vital records) and those kept by churches. In either case, the marriage typically took place where the bride lived, although not always. Marriage records were often the earliest vital records kept by civil authorities in an area—even before birth or death records. The majority of marriage records were kept at the county level and may have begun as soon as the county was formed. An exception to this were the marriage records kept in colonial times in New England, which were kept at the town level. Marriage records that were kept at the county level may also have been reported to the state and stored there, so indexes often exist at various levels.
Churches also recorded marriages and may have even predated the government records. As you look for church records, realize that they are less likely to be digitized than vital records and may be difficult to locate for certain time periods. They may not include as much information as vital records, since individual churches recorded whatever information they wanted, but you may find that some church marriage records contain a wealth of information about your family.
While you’re most likely to find your ancestor’s marriage record among church or government files, marriages were recorded in many other places as well. For example, you might find the date and place of a marriage in an old family Bible, an obituary, a county history, or some other family record. Marriage announcements were also commonly included in newspapers.
What we call a “marriage record” may actually refer to a number of different documents created during the marriage process. For more information on the types of marriage records, see the sidebar “Following the Trail of Marriage Records.”
Information in Marriage Records
Following the Trail of Marriage Records
Documents categorized as marriage records actually include a number of different types of documents, including:
- Intentions. Most common before 1850, these were posted in a public place prior to a marriage to show a couple’s intention to marry and allow others a chance to object.
- Marriage bonds. These can be found in southern and mid-Atlantic states until around 1850. Usually posted by a member of the bride’s family, they showed a couple’s intention to marry. The bond was the amount of money the groom would pay if the marriage did not go through.
- Marriage applications and licenses. A bride or groom applied to the civil authority for a marriage application or license, which showed that the couple had legal permission to marry.
- Consent papers. These can be found if the bride or groom was underage, as defined by each state. These documents show the parents’ permission for the marriage.
- Marriage records. A marriage record is the actual recording of the event.
- Marriage certificates. A marriage certificate was given to the couple at the time of the marriage. The clerk or other official may also have kept a copy.
- Returns and registers. The person who performed the marriage, such as a minister or justice of the peace, sent these to the county clerk to show that the marriage had taken place.
Because marriage records varied by when the records were kept, where the records were kept, and who kept the records, the content also varied. Some of the most common details you can expect to find are:
- Names of the bride and groom.
- Where and when the marriage took place.
- Ages of the bride and groom.
- Residences of the bride and groom.
- Birth dates and places of the bride and groom.
- Occupations of the bride and groom.
- Marital status of the bride and groom (if widowed or divorced and possibly some basic information about a previous marriage).
- Information about the bride’s and groom’s parents, such as names, residences, or even occupations.
- Names of witnesses, which may be other family members.
- Name and title of the person performing the marriage.
Some records will include only a few of these details, while others may contain all this information or perhaps other information.
Finding Marriage Records
A great place to start your search for marriage records is with a written guide, which can help you know what’s available and where to find it. You’ll find just that in the FamilySearch Wiki article “How to Find United States Marriage Records.” Click a state to see a chart that breaks down the marriage records by time period and links to online collections. Another useful resource is the website Where to Write for Vital Records.
Many of the links in the FamilySearch Wiki article connect you to the following resources (other useful sites may also be listed):
- FamilySearch. You can find U.S. marriage records at FamilySearch when you search for your ancestor, look at hints on your family tree, or search the catalog for the relevant places. FamilySearch is in the process of indexing marriage records as part of the U.S. Marriages Project. To read more about that, to check the progress, or to sign up to participate, click here.
- Ancestry. You can see a list of specific collections here or search everything at once here. Some collections contain actual images of the records while others are just indexes. Ancestry requires a paid subscription or access through a free LDS Account.
- Findmypast. This U.S. marriage collection claims to be the largest in existence online, “with over 100 million I do’s.” As with Ancestry, a subscription or a free LDS Account is required.
Since privacy laws protect more recent marriage records, you may need to write for copies of these. The Where to Write for Vital Records is a particularly useful resource in such cases.
Marriage records are one of the basic resources for family history. With this overview, you’re now ready to start your search for them and begin linking your family together.
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