Marriage records are a major source of genealogical information since they mark the merging of two families and provide what may be the only source of a married woman’s maiden surname. Searching for maiden names in marriage records is one of the first priorities of all genealogy research. One maiden name brings a whole new set of ancestors and their stories into play.
Marriage has always been a very public covenant, since two people were vowing to care for each other and their children, ideally preventing single parents and orphans from relying on public charity. In the United States, counties have been recording marriages for much longer than they have been recording births and deaths. Even if the county records are otherwise very sparse, you can usually expect to find a collection of early marriage records. Whether a civil or church authority performed the ceremony, local laws usually required that the marriage be recorded in civil records. Traditionally, marriages were performed in the bride’s hometown.
What information can I find in a marriage record?
Depending on the locality, the era, the institution, the clerk, and the informant, you may find the following information in a marriage record:
- Full names of bride and groom
- Date and/or place of birth for bride and groom
- Age at time of marriage
- Church of marriage ceremony
- County where the marriage took place
- Date of the marriage
- 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
- Residences of the parties
- Whether single, widowed, or divorced
Types of marriage records in genealogy research
Civil marriage records can take several different forms, most often a register, a license, or a certificate. In addition to a church record of a marriage, you might find a recording of the banns. Banns were public announcements made by the church of the impending marriage, giving members of the community an opportunity to make known any impediments to the union, such as a close cousin relationship or an existing spouse. Keep in mind that a license, engagement announcement, or banns prove that the couple planned to marry, but they do not necessarily prove the actual date of the marriage, or even that it took place at all.
Where can I find marriage records?
In addition to civil and church records, you may find a record of a marriage in newspapers (including obituaries), family Bibles and personal histories, or compiled genealogies, either online or in print (be careful to check their sources!). Google Books, MyHeritage, Ancestry, FamilySearch, and FindMyPast are all online sources for marriage records.
Still can’t find that marriage record? Maybe a “Gretna Green” marriage is the reason!
If you have tried all these places and still cannot find the marriage of your ancestors, consider the possibility that they went to a “Gretna Green” to get married. A Gretna Green marriage is when a couple elopes or otherwise chooses to marry away from their hometown(s) and families. They might do this to take advantage of laxer marriage laws that allow them to marry without the consent of their parents, at younger ages, for less money, or without a prescribed waiting period. These marriages were less likely to be publicly announced, and sometimes the only record created was a line in the officiant’s account book.
Where did the term “Gretna Green” originate?
Gretna Green is a town in Scotland, just over the border from England, where couples fled to take advantage of Scotland’s less restrictive marriage laws as early as the mid-1700s. You may recall that in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, it was feared that 16-year-old Lydia Bennett and George Wickham had run off to Gretna Green to marry against the wishes of Lydia’s family. In Scotland, anyone, even the local blacksmith, could perform a marriage ceremony, as long as there were at least two witnesses and the couple declared there were no impediments. Grooms had to be at least 14 years old and brides at least 12. Over time, any place that became known as a “runaway wedding” haven came to be categorized as a “Gretna Green.”
In the United States, Gretna Greens can be found in the border towns of states with relatively lax marriage laws. Military posts along the frontier, towns along the Canadian and Mexican borders, and river towns along the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and Hudson Rivers are other likely Gretna Greens.
If you are searching for your ancestors’ marriage, consider the following well-known Gretna Greens in the United States:
- Port Orchard, Washington
- Clark County, Washington
- Skamania County, Washington
- Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
- Payette, Idaho
- Weiser, Idaho
- Bear Lake, Idaho
- Evanston, Wyoming
- Omaha, Nebraska
- Farmington, Utah
- Las Vegas, Nevada
- Winnemucca, Nevada
- West Wendover, Nevada
- Elko, Nevada
- Reno, Nevada
- Yuma, Arizona
- Raton, New Mexico
- Richmond and Rosenburg, Texas
- Liberty, Texas
- Orange County, Texas
- Norton County, Kansas
- Texarkana, Arkansas
- Tishomingo County, Mississippi
- Keokuk, Iowa
- Crown Point, Indiana
- South Bend, Indiana
- Angola, Indiana
- Clark County, Indiana
- Evansville, Indiana
- Chicago, Illinois
- Cincinnati, Ohio
- Aberdeen, Ohio
- Port Huron, Michigan
- Joseph, Michigan
- Pike County, Kentucky
- Maysville, Kentucky
- South Point, Tennessee
- Rome, Georgia
- Airy, North Carolina
- West Alexander, West Virginia
- Point Pleasant, West Virginia
- Manassas, Virginia
- Fredericksburg, Virginia
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- West Alexander, Pennsylvania
- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Reading, Pennsylvania
- Westminster, Maryland
- Howard County, Maryland
- Elkton, Maryland
- Niagara Falls, New York (and Niagara Falls, Ontario)
- Ogdensburg, New York
- Crown Point, New York
- New York City, New York
- Kings County, New York
- Buffalo, New York
- Groton, Connecticut
- Thompson, Connecticut
- Lowell, Massachusetts
At Legacy Tree Genealogists, we leave no stone unturned when searching for the marriage of an elusive ancestor or clues to any other unsolved mystery. Leave the sleuthing to us and let us discover and preserve your family stories! Contact us today to request a free quote.
Arline Eakle, „Have you searched and searched for the marriage without finding it?”
Della Schults says
Another “Grenta Green” that I have found is Clark County, Mo. Many couples from Southern Iowa crossed into Lancaster County to marry to avoid parental consent or the laws in Iowa. In early Iowa there are many couples that crossed over to Sweet Home, Mo to marry. Later in Iowa’s history couples went to Schuyler County, Mo (Kirkwood and Lancaster) for these same reasons.
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
Thanks for sharing!
Martin Moore Sr says
After 50-years of visiting hard-copy records followed by the easier Ancestry, Family Search etal fact gathering from the 1990s 0 I have my tree quite complete (6100+Persons) with full supporting sources. But one key person evades me – my 2xGreat-Gradfather who arrived from England in the mid 1800s (approx ca1830-50) I trace him back to Jordan Ontario with his Wife (of Michigan birth) where my 1X Gr+Grandfather was born. All sources and tracing from Jordan on are very well documented but the 3xGG vanished with the 1878 marriage of his son (the 2XGG). I can’t seem to identify to where he and his wife vanished nor his origin information pre Jordan Ontario. Common Names seem to complicate things. I don’t need any deep tree tracking – but at a loss as to other ways so source his immigration and disappearance once settled in Ontario. No sign of Immigration to the U.S. for him – only some of his family. Any ideas or cost for this single person tracking. Marty Moore Sr
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
Hi Martin–I recommend one of our Genealogist-on-Demand™ Genealogy Consultations. Each consultation gives you one-on-one access to one of our genealogists for 45-minutes in an online screen-sharing platform, where you can have your research questions answered in real-time and get research strategies, suggestions for record collections, etc. You may schedule a consultation here: https://legacytree.com/consultation.
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