United States Marriage RecordsEdit This Page
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A valuable source for genealogists is the Marriage Record. Churches and governments often kept marriage records before they documented other life events. Whether a civil or church authority performed the ceremony, local laws usually required that the marriage be recorded in civil records. Marriage has always been a very public covenant, recorded in a variety of ways.
These records are usually stored with the clerk of the town or county where the bride resided, but some particularly early ones may be housed in the state’s archives and more recent ones may be found in the state’s Division of Vital Records. You may find records that show a couple's intent to marry in addition to the records of the actual marriage
For more information concerning marriage records by State see the Summary of Marriage Records in the United States by State page.
For more information about using marriage records effectively, click here.
Records of Intention To Marry
Various records may have been created that show a couple's intent to marry.
Marriage banns are the public announcement of an intended marriage. Banns and intentions were made a few weeks before a couple planned to marry. The couple may have been required to announce their intentions in order to give other community members the opportunity to raise any objections to the marriage. This was a rather common custom in the southern and New England states through the mid-1800's. Traditionally the announcement of an impending wedding would be announced in the church for three weeks prior to the event.
Banns were a religious custom in which the couple announced to their local congregation that they planned to marry. They may have also posted a written notice at the church. Intentions were written notices presented to the local civil authority and posted in a public place for a given period of time. The minister or town clerk recorded these announcements in a register, or you may find them interfiled with other town or church records.
Marriage bonds are written guarantees or promises of payment made by the groom or another person (often a relative of the bride) to ensure that a forthcoming marriage would be legal. The person who posted the bond was known as the surety or bondsman. The bond was presented to the minister or official who would perform the ceremony. The bond was then returned to the town or county clerk. These documents were frequently used in the southern and middle-Atlantic states up to the mid-1800's.
Applications and Licenses
Applications and licenses are the most common types of records showing intent to marry. These gradually replaced the use of banns, intentions, and bonds. A bride and groom obtained a license to be married by applying to the proper civil authorities, usually a town or county clerk. These records have the most information of genealogical value, including the couple's names, ages, and residence. Later records also provide their race, birth dates, occupations, and usually the names of the parents. The license was presented to the person who performed the marriage and was later returned to the town or county clerk. Applications for a license are primarily a twentieth-century record. These often contain more detailed information than the license.
Consent papers may be available if the consent of a parent or guardian was required, often when the bride or groom was underage. The consent may have been verbal or written on the license or bond.
Contracts or Settlements
Contracts or settlements are documents created for the protection of legal rights and property. These are occasionally a part of a marriage application, especially in regions that were colonized by France or Spain.
Records of Marriages
In most cases it can be assumed that the couple married a short time after announcing their intent, even though you may not find proof of the actual marriage. A minister, justice of the peace, military officer, ship officer, or state official could legally marry a couple. You may find the following records that document the actual marriage:
The individual who performed the ceremony or the civil office where it was recorded may have given the couple a certificate of marriage. This may be in the possession of the family. The clerk of the court may have a copy.
Returns and Registers
Town and county clerks generally recorded the marriages they performed in a register or book. If the marriage was performed by someone else, such as a minister or justice of the peace, that person was required to report, or “return”, the marriage information to the town or county clerk. This information may have been reported in writing or verbally or, more frequently, the official recorded the event on the license or bond and returned this document to the clerk. For this purpose, many licenses and bonds were printed with a separate section of the document designated as the “return.”
The information on the return usually included the names of the couple, the date and place of the marriage, and the name of the person who performed the marriage. Twentieth-century returns often add the residence of the couple, the names of the parents or witnesses, and the certificate number.
The town or county clerk recorded (“registered”) the marriage returns in a separate register or book, although you may find some early returns in court or town minutes and deed books. He may also have written on the license or the bond the date he registered the marriage.
Twentieth-century marriages are still registered by the county or town, but most states now require the counties to report the marriages to the state office of vital records. Many counties keep duplicates of the records they send to the state.
Personal Records of the Individual Who Performed the Ceremony
Before the twentieth century, the information on many marriages was not returned. If evidence of a marriage was not presented to a civil clerk, this information might be found only in the personal journal or other records of the official who performed the marriage.
Things you may find in a Marriage Records
- Age at time of marriage
- Church of marriage ceremony
- County where the marriage took place
- Date and/or place of birth for bride and groom
- Date of the marriage
- Full names of bride and groom
- Name of minister or priest
- Names and birthplaces of the bride’s and groom’s parents
- Names of the witnesses to the marriage, often relatives
- Residence of the parties
- Whether single, widowed or divorced
How Information from Marriage Records can Help Research
Marriage records can help you find the following information:
- Addresses to assist in researching deeds or city directories, locate on maps, or narrow your search in an un-indexed census
- Birth date and/or place to research for the bride and groom
- Church records for the marriage
- Determine which children belong to which mother in the case of multiple marriages
- Information about previous marriages
- Maiden name for a woman
- Newspaper announcement
- Parents' names (and possibly birth places) to research
Places to look for Marriage Records
- Church records of marriages
- City and County civil registrations
- Family Bibles and personal histories
- Google and other web site search sites, and don't forget to search Google Books
- Locating United States Vital Records
- Newspapers often listed articles about marriages
- Obituaries sometimes give marriage dates
- Online records sites like Ancestry, Footnote, World Vital Records, Heritage Quest...
- State Archives
- Submitted genealogies posted by others UsGenWeb, Genealogy links, Gengateway, Usgennet, FamGen, Rootsweb, Genealogy.com, Kindred Konnections, Ancestry.......
- Gretna Greens in the United States. When an eloping couple's marriage is not in their home county, search for it in alternate places like out-of-state counties.
Places to Search for a Maiden Name
- Family Bibles and personal histories
- Cemetery records burial, sexton, purchase and maintenance of plot, headstone
- Census records Federal and State
- Church records death, marriage and christening, membership
- Death records, certificates (Church and Civil)
- Land records deeds, morgages
- Marriage records application, license, certificate (Church and Civil)
- Military records service and pension, enlistment
- Naming patterns are names passed on as a given or middle name, name multi generational
- Newspapers birth, marriage and death announcements, society pages
- Marriages may have been documented and recognized by both a civil and a church authorities, the civil process may include applications, license and certificate, the church records may include marriage register and ministers records.
- Witness to the marriage may prove to be related to the bride and groom.
- An announcement of the marriage may have been placed in a local newspapers and church publications* Probate records and wills.
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has copies of many marriage records indexes and marriage records. Most of these marriage records are filmed and/or digitized. To check the availability of death records in a particular state, go the vital records wiki pages for that state. In addition you may browse or search FamilySearch Record Search. This is a website which posts indexes to and some images from the Family History Library vital records collection. These records can be found in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under each of the following approaches:
- [STATE] - MARRIAGE RECORDS
- [STATE], [COUNTY] - MARRIAGE RECORDS
- [STATE], [COUNTY], [TOWN] - MARRIAGE RECORDS
- [STATE] - MARRIAGE RECORDS
For more information about how to search the Family History Library catalog for marriage records, go to individual state vital records wiki pages.
- FamilySearch is a free website with indexes and some images to many Family History Library vital records collections.
- GenWeb is a free genealogical research database for marriage records and a directory to other marriage records online for the United States.
- Vitalrec.com is a comprehensive resource for locating vital records.
- Ancestry.com Selected marriage records for some states and particular time periods. ($)
A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:
- ↑ Arlene H. Eakle, "Have you searched and searched for a marriage without finding it?" in Genealogy Blog at http://www.arleneeakle.com/wordpress/2007/02/19/have-you-searched-and-searched-for-the-marriage-without-finding-it/ (accessed 8 January 2011).