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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Marriage Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 14, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

On this special day, our hearts are turned to those we love. For many this is as romantic a day as their anniversary or wedding day. For genealogists though, it is the marriage records themselves that make hearts skip a beat.

When we hear the term "marriage record" our mind usually settles on the marriage license, one of the most common marriage records in the United States. However, there are many different types of marriage records and each may hold the clues you need.

Maiden names are a benefit of marriage records.

Marriage Licenses

The marriage license is one of the most common marriage records found in the United States. The marriage license was the paper that authorized the minister or justice of the peace to join the bride and groom in marriage. The marriage license is returned to the county courthouse, or town clerk, where it is filed. Many of these marriage licenses have been microfilmed by the Family History Library and are available through your local Family History Center.

The marriage license usually gives you the names of the bride and groom and the information on when they were married, where, and by whom. The more important record though for genealogists, is the marriage license application.

In many county courthouses the marriage license and the application are found on the same record. Often the marriage license is a double sided record, one side showing the license itself, and the other side showing the application.

The application is where you find information such as the ages of the bride and groom, perhaps their places of birth. Many applications also mention the names of the parents of each, including the maiden name of the mothers.

Other Marriage Records

While marriage licenses are one of the most recognized marriage records, there are some other records that may be generated as a bride and groom are married or plan to be married.

Marriage banns are another type of marriage record. The bann is read, usually in church on Sunday, for three consecutive weeks. They may also be posted in a public place for the townspeople to see. The marriage bann was an opportunity for those who knew of a reason why the couple shouldn't be married to speak up. This is sort of what that part of the wedding ceremony is for, though usually we do not have someone stand up during the ceremony. It is possible that a townsperson knew that the groom was not in a position to be married, was in debt, other had another wife, who knows. (From my own research I've actually come across instances when the other wife never actually got in the way of the marriage.) However, often times the banns are the only record you will find. So you assume that they were married after the third week of the bann being read. Many genealogy programs now offer an event devoted to the marriage bann.

In some states, particular southern states, you will find a marriage bond. The bond was posted by the groom and a second person. Often times the second person was related in some way to the bride. The bond was like the bann, only instead of giving the groom or bride the chance to hear why they shouldn't get married, the bond assures that there is no reason that they can't marry and has a monetary penalty should the marriage not take place. I have seen marriage applications on the back of the bond, with the application or the bond saying that the couple was to be married on a given day.

Once in a while, if the bride or groom was under the minimum legal age, you will find what is known as the consent affidavit. The consent affidavit came from a parent of the under aged individual that gave permission for the marriage to take place. These permissions take on a wide variety of forms from notations on the marriage license by the clerk of a verbal permission given, to handwritten letters that accompanied the marriage record in the court holdings. Of course, once in awhile you discover that someone didn't want the marriage to take place and would write a letter to the court advising them not to marry the couple should they appear. These letters are also found in marriage records of the county.

Other Countries

Many other countries have both church and civil marriage records. The information found on the record varies from country to country. For instance, the civil registration of marriages in England give you the names of the bride and groom, their ages, occupations (though the females are often just listed as a spinster), their residences, the names of the father of each and his occupation.

In Italy, you will find that the marriage records contain a wealth of genealogical information. The civil registrar would record the information on both the bride and groom, including their age and place of birth. They would also include information on the bride's and groom's parents. With an Italian marriage record you can often find out where each parent was born, and sometimes their age and occupation as well. I have even seen some where such attention to detail is afforded to the witnesses.

When you cannot find civil records, be sure to turn your attention to church records. Remember when working in foreign countries that there may be a language barrier, especially when dealing with church records. Even in the United States, the church records may be written in Latin. I have seen some that are a combination of the native language and Latin, making for an interesting afternoon of analyzing the record.

In Conclusion

Marriage records abound, and they are the holder of valuable information to aid us in our research. While not every courthouse or church will have all of the information, you may now be aware of records that you hadn't thought to seek in your searching.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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