Marriage Records

  • Researchers are always looking for a person's parents to extend their family tree. In the past, parents often got married and that process usually created some helpful records. This article looks at those records along with some Problem Solving Examples and a list of Helpful Hints.

  • I have added several notes since the number of online marriage indexes and images of marriage certificates has grown tremendously in the four years since this article was originally published. Many of Jeff's lectures expand upon the stories and examples contained in this article. For information on his lectures, please see and then select Lectures.

Till Death Us Do Part

By Jeffrey A. Bockman

Originally published in Heritage Quest Magazine Spring 2005, page 24.

A modern wedding ceremony has roots going back to Europe and reflects some of the early customs of our ancestors. From a genealogical research standpoint, the only difference between a marriage that took place in a church with a thousand people in attendance and millions watching on television and a couple standing in the woods pledging their love is the amount of documentation created. Marriage records can go from nothing, to a family bible entry, to the minister's records, to church records, to jurisdictional records, to possibly even news coverage.

Marriage records typically provide the full name of the groom, the maiden name of the bride, when and where they were married, and the name of the official who conducted the ceremony. The names or even the signatures of the witnesses may also be included.

One of the major genealogical benefits of a marriage record is that it provides the maiden name of the bride. Some people use marriage records to lend "legitimacy" to a child's birth. The information contained in marriage records will vary greatly depending upon the time period, the jurisdiction, the religion, the church, or possibly even the official.

For many jurisdictions outside of the original colonies, marriage records have been kept since the jurisdiction was created. However, there is not a record of every marriage. A reply from the New York State Archives stated "Birth, death and marriage records prior to 1880, with few exceptions, were not compiled by either state or local governments. You may wish to contact the appropriate local church." It wasn't until 1911 that South Carolina had official marriage records.

Home Sources

As with most research the best place to start is at home. The couple was possibly given the original marriage certificate at the end of the ceremony. Marriages may also have been recorded in the family bible, a diary, or other home record shortly after the event or as soon as they heard about it. The couple or their parents may have kept an announcement, an invitation, cards of congratulations, and any newspaper articles. There might be a photograph of the couple taken at or around the time of the wedding with their names and possibly the marriage date written on the back.

(2009: I found a receipt for my parent's wedding that was dated February 4, 1948 for $5.00 for "Organist for wedding February 7 at 4:00 p.m.")

Original Marriage Certificates - were printed by the state, jurisdiction, or the church and were completed by the person performing the ceremony, signed by the witnesses, and then given to the couple. Besides the basic facts listed above, the certificate may include the age or county of residence for the bride and groom. My parent's "The Marriage Service" booklet included a Declaration of Intention signed by them, a copy of the service with their names written in all of the appropriate blanks so that the minister would not forget them, and then the official certificate. After the service a separate form was completed and returned to the jurisdiction to be recorded.

Family Bible Marriage Page - was often filled out by the couple, documented their own marriage when they first obtained the Bible. Future marriages were then usually added in order. By looking at all of the entries and the Bible's publication date you can figure out about when they obtained the Bible or started to record entries. Look for chronological entries, different pens and handwriting. The handwriting would also have changed when the Bible was passed along to one of the children. In the Jared & Esther West family Bible the chronological entry of records began around 1810 with Esther documenting, in her own handwriting, her wedding in the first column. The weddings of her children were entered in the second column. It appears that the Bible was then passed to a daughter, Jane Raworth, who then recorded the marriages of her children in the first column.

[Jared West's family Bible - Marriages]

Newspaper announcements - usually provided a little more information, some might even help to link generations. The following appeared in The Leader published in Pomeroy, Meigs county, Ohio on May 14, 1896:

"Sylvester Lewis and Miss Emma Hysell were married at the residence of the bride's father Chas. Hysell, on Devil Run. May 8th Rev. DeLong officiated."

Current marriage announcements provide much more information including the names of the couple's parents and possibly their grandparents. It often mentions where they went to school and their current employment. Occasionally there is a detailed description of their attire, a list of the attendants, along with other details of the wedding. Some even mention where they are going on their honeymoon and where they plan on living.

Go to Source

If you can not find any records at home then you normally go to the jurisdiction to get a copy. Unlike births and deaths that usually occurred close to where they lived, couples could and occasionally did get married elsewhere. Maybe they met while away at school or while working in another town and decided to get married there. Maybe it was easier or quicker for them to get married in a nearby state. This is not just a modern day problem. I cannot find any official record for the October 2nd, 1805 marriage of Jared and Esther West that took place in Athens, New York. The Esther was from Connecticut and Jared was from Massachusetts both states with very good records, but unfortunately they decided to get married in New York, before the town or any of the churches began keeping records. How many couples currently get married in Las Vegas or on the beach at a Caribbean resort?

There are now a number of online indexes of marriage records that can help with searching an entire state for limited time periods. Volunteers have created some of these by going through the older records while other jurisdictions are posing information from their computer systems. The "About" or "What's Included" areas of the website should be reviewed to see exactly what time periods and jurisdictions are included before doing any searches. In the Illinois Statewide Marriage Index 1763 -1900 at there are four counties without any entries, several that only include a few years, a number where the volunteers continued up to 1915, and one to 1925.

A number of state and local marriage indexes can be found by searching the Internet for "Marriage Index" and the state or by going to Cyndi's list at

There is a vast and somewhat puzzling difference between what some states or jurisdictions include or allow online. Illinois will not allow even an index of marriages after 1916 due to a 75-year privacy act that was passed in 1991 without including a provision for a moving 75-year period. Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, on the other hand allows searches of current records at

[2009: The link is now located at Select Marriage Records and then search.]

It is easy to see if a relative or celebrity has obtained a marriage license. Later on it will show if the marriage record has been returned and recorded. Hillsborough County, Florida, which includes Tampa, has an 1878 - 1893 index with links to images of the marriage certificates (

(2009: The number of online indexes and actual certificates has grown tremendously over the past four years.

See and then select Marriages for links to many of them.

FamilySearch has been adding actual certificates, including Cook County Illinois from 1871 to 1920. had added many marriage indexes including New Orleans, Louisiana where I found the wedding of Theodore Bockman and Alva Neuhaus, my great-grandparents.

Note: The Hillsborough records are not long available but that just proves that you need to print out or save any images that you find on the web.)

Getting Hitched

A look at the marriage process shows what records may have been created:

    • Proposal or Betrothal - a non-documented verbal agreement or possibly a pre-nuptial contract.

    • The couple filled out a Marriage Application at the jurisdiction. It contains a lot of good genealogical information but it is usually not available. There may have been age or residency requirements. Blood or medical test records may also have been needed.

    • The authority checked to see if it was legal for them to get married. Were they too young, already married, or too close (first cousins for example.)

    • Early Virginia law required a bond to be posted by a "Surety" to insure that there was no lawful reason to prevent the marriage.

    • A Marriage License was issued immediately in some areas or several days later in others. The license permitted an official to marry them.

    • The Marriage Ceremony.

A well known part of the ceremony is the question "If any man can show just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace."

This was the opportunity for a man or woman to stand up, possibly with all of their children, to claim that they were already married to either the bride or groom.

    • The Original Marriage Certificate was completed and given to the couple after the ceremony.

    • The Return Copy of the Marriage Certificate was completed after the ceremony and returned to the jurisdiction by the official who performed the ceremony.

    • The official may have kept his or her own records.

    • If the ceremony was held in a church their records would be updated.

    • The county or town clerk would have recorded the marriage from the returned information.

    • Newspapers may have covered the ceremony if it was a prominent family or newsworthy. An announcement may have appeared after the family submitted the information to their local papers.

Jurisdictional records

If the marriage cannot be found in one of the indexes, but there is a good idea about where and when the marriage took place, then the jurisdiction can be determined using the Everton's Handybook for Genealogists or the county GenWeb site via Check to see when they began recording marriages and to see what indexes and records are available. Then check the jurisdiction's website for the current information on the availability of copies and fees. Due to privacy laws some records might not be available for a certain period of time or unless a direct relationship exists.

There could be some slight differences on the date depending upon whether the clerk recorded the date of the license, the actual date of the marriage, or the date the record was returned. There could be a record for license that was issued to a couple that never got married.

When someone requests a jurisdictional copy of a marriage record the information comes from the returned copy. Technology has obviously changed over the years. My grandmother had obtained a copy of her 1912 Kane County, Illinois marriage license and all of the information was typed. When I obtained a copy several years ago they used a computer index to quickly find the record and then printed out a copy of the actual handwritten images for both the certificate and the return information.

At a jurisdictional office there is usually a groom index and a bride index for various time periods. The indexes tell the volume and page number for the actual book where the marriage was recorded. You may or may not be able to view the actual book.

(2009: If you find a marriage in an online index and there is not a copy of the actual jurisdictional record then be sure to request a copy of the record because there could be additional information.

[The New Orleans Louisiana Marriage record for Theodore Bockman and Alva Neuhaus

includes the names of their parents! Also take note of the witnesses and officials])

A wide variety of publications that contain marriages for a town or county are available. Genealogy societies often compiled the records and published them in their newsletters or booklets. The information could have come from the county or town records, church records, or newspapers.

Early marriage records often came from minister returns or the Justice of the Peace reporting of marriages in the town's meeting records. Indexes of many early marriage records have been published. Well-known are the published collections of Rhode Island's Vital Records, transcribed by James N. Arnold, and a series of books for the records of various Massachusetts towns before 1850. Also, The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Towns Vital Records includes marriages for various towns and time frames. Volume 36 contains Ridgefield from 1709 - 1850. It contains births, deaths, and marriages alphabetically by family.

It lists the two marriages for Esther Olmstead's father:

Samuel 3rd m Martha Rockwell Feb 24, 1767 Vol 1 page 150

Samuel 3rd m Sarah Morris Oct. 23, 1784 Vol 1 page 153

Originally copied from the church record and entered by the clerk in town records, the Connecticut vital records were then transcribed by several individuals including Arnold, known for his Rhode Island collection. (Obviously there were opportunities for transcription errors, and you can read about how the project was organized at the Connecticut State Library's website: Esther's birth in 1787 shows Martha (who had died in 1784) as the mother, rather than Sarah. Let these listings lead you to the original primary record. Especially when there is a discrepancy the original record should be reviewed.

(2009: Many of the Massachusetts vital record before 1850 books can be found at

Use GenWeb and online library catalogs to see what publications or indexes are available and how to locate them. Microfilms of older jurisdictional records may be available at state or regional archives or libraries. Family History Centers may also be able to provide copies. Use a "place name" search of the Family History Library Catalog at to determine what records are available for a locality.

(2009: Use WorldCat at can search for books at many libraries and show the ones closest one to your home.)

Church records

Early marriages did not require civil registration. A couple published "banns" (their intent to get married) at the local church for three consecutive weeks. If there were no objections the clergy would then marry them. The main objection would usually be that one of them was already married. Church and family records would be the only proof.

A minister often made periodic rounds to outlying settlements in the countryside. The time period between a couple's betrothal, their possibly "consummating the agreement" to see if they can have children, and the official ceremony can bring up legitimacy questions between the date of the official ceremony and the birth of the first child.

The marriage certificate gives the name of the official and possibly the name the church. The quality of records and the type of information kept will vary greatly by church. It doesn't hurt to see what if any additional information they may have. Some churches, like those in parts of Austria, may have kept a house or family record which included the marriage date, the bride's maiden name, and even the house (family) that she came from.

Newspapers Marriage Indexes

Many genealogical and historical societies have created indexes of the marriages that were published in local papers. These indexes can be on index cards in the local library, published in newsletters or booklets, or available in an on-line database. There have also been a number of books published on extracted marriages and deaths for a certain newspaper within a date range. Search the Internet and on-line card catalogs by city, newspapers, and marriage. James P Maher has compiled three volumes of the Index to Marriage and Deaths in the New York Herald. Volume 1 covers 1835 - 1855 and it has an alphabetical listing by groom and then a listing by bride showing the spouse and issue date.

Indexes help to quickly identify the correct issue. If there is not an index then search the local papers until well after the marriage date. Also check the newspapers in the couple's or their family's hometown well after the event. When reviewing a newspaper be sure to look for other items such as "licenses issued", "society news", "church events." Who knows what might have been printed, especially if there was not much else going on in town that day. Review a few issues before the marriage since there might even be articles about upcoming events or visitors coming to town.

Unfortunately the publication of the detailed modern marriage announcements are often more than several months after the event. Without an index or online search capability locating them can be difficult.

(2009: Online newspapers now make finding marriage notices and stories much easier. Every name is not always indexed. Also try searching for "Marriage" or the title of the column that carried the vital records. See the article "Extra! Extra! Read All About Your Ancestors" for more information on newspaper research.)

Other records

There are a number of other records that may list the name of a spouse, possibly the year of marriage, and occasionally the actual marriage date.Cemetery and Burial Records - may show a relationship, a woman's maiden name, but probably not the marriage date.

Census Records -vary from census to census in the about of information gathered:

    • 1850 - 1880

    • Spouse listed below head of household (Confirmation is needed)

    • Married within Census Year?

    • 1870-1930 - Relationship to head is shown

    • 1900 - Number of Years Married

    • 1910 - Number of years Present Marriage

    • 1920-1930 - Married?

City Directories - can be helpful since they occasionally listed the wife like in the 1923 Aurora, Illinois directory with "Johnston Granville (Sarah)." Even if they did not list the wife's name they can be useful as in the 1837-38 & 1838-39 New York City directories where it listed West Esther wid of Jared H. He had died in 1835 and there was no entry for 36-37.

Death Certificates - usually show if the deceased was single, married, or widowed. Some may have the spouse's name or maiden name. A living spouse may be the informant, but the relationship might not be stated.

Funeral Home Records - may give the spouse's name, maiden name if a woman was the deceased.

Immigration Records - If your relative came through Ellis Island the records will only show if they were married or single.

Land Records - may include the names of both the husband and wife.

Naturalization Records - specifically, a person's Petition for Citizenship includes the name of their spouse, their marriage date, and the city and state where they were married.

Military Records or Pension file - should show the spouse's name or even contain proof of the marriage.

Will & Probate Records - may give the name of the spouse.

County Histories, MUG Books - generally contain brief biographical sketches. Check for people with the same last names and any known siblings. The sketches usually give the couple's names and the location of their marriage. It occasionally contains the specific wedding date but usually gives at least the month and year.

Family Histories - Published and Online Genealogies - See if any information has been published or entered in any of the online repositories such as:,, and

(2009: County Histories and Family Histories are being digitized and put online. Be sure to check at and BYU Family History Archive. Also, find a book at WorldCat and then search for a digital version.)

Post a Query - networking by county or family may help you locate another family member who has a copy of the marriage certificate and can send a copy to you.

Common law marriage

Some states still recognize a common law marriage while others previously did. Where it was legal if two people lived as husband and wife for a period of time, usually seven years, then they were considered married. There was no "official record" however it was still considered a legal marriage. In other states living together was just an illegal co-habitation. There is no such thing as a common law divorce.

Problem Solving

A marriage record not only helps to fill in the "married" line on genealogy forms but when used with other marriage records they can sometimes help provide some insight or clues for future research.

Finding several people with the same last name getting married on the same day by the same official might be a clue that they are related. In the records extracted from the June 5, 1835 New York Herald by James P. Maher were:

June 1, 1835 Jonathan O. West married Margaret Watson by Rev. Sawyer.

June 1, 1835 Sewell Parker married Laura E. West by Rev. Sawyer

Even finding double weddings where a brother & sister from one family marrying a sister and brother from another family was not all that uncommon.

The following Marriage Bonds of Campbell Co. Virginia are interesting:

(Aug. 25) 1828, 8, 5 Peter Wilson & Permillia Johnson

James Johnson, Surety.

(Jan. 4) 1833, 1,4 William Fozdick & Mary A. Johnson, dt. James.

George B. Sammons, Surety.

(April 8) 1833, 4, 8 William Johnson & Mary Farmer, dt Thos. B.

William Fosdick, Surety.

William, Mary, and Permillia Johnson were supposedly a brother and sisters of my great great-grandfather Henry and the children of a James Johnson and a Rebecca Jones. The marriage bonds help to tie William and Mary together. A newspaper entry adds an interesting twist.

Fosdick, William married on Jan. 5, 1833 to Miss Mary Johnson, dau of Mr. James Johnston by the Rev. Henry Brown. All of Campbell Co. Bride 25 years old, groom 75 years old. The Lynchburg Virginian Jan. 21, 1833 p3. c4.

First, note that the bond was dated Jan. 4th while the marriage was on the 5th. Now for a few questions: Would a living father allow his daughter to marry someone 50 years older? Were they in desperate financial need? Did something happen to the James between 1828 and 1833? Had he moved away or died?

Henry lived with an uncle until 1835. William and Mary Fosdick did have two children that were named James and Rebecca. Were they named after Mary's parents? As shown here, a few simple facts can be used to generate a number of questions and possible avenues for future research.

Get Them All

Try to locate all of the jurisdictional and church marriage records along with any newspaper articles since they each might have slightly different information. I just read about a couple that was married in Vienna, Austria in the early 1900s. They had a Jewish service for the husband's family, an Anglican service for the wife, and then they still had to have a civil ceremony at the town hall. Their marriage like many others lasted until "death us do part" but the records that were created continue on.


Bible Records

Marriage Application

Marriage Record

Marriage Certificates

(Original or Index)

Church Records



Cemetery and Burial Records - possibly spouse's name

Census Records

    • 1850 - 1880

    • Spouse listed below head of household (Confirmation is needed)

    • Married within Census Year?

    • 1870-1930 - Relationship to head is shown

    • 1900 - Number of Years Married

    • 1910 - Number of years Present Marriage

    • 1920-1930 - Married?

City Directories - may list the spouses name or show "widow of"

Death Certificate (may list spouse)

Funeral Home Records - spouse's name if still living

Immigration Records - show if married

Land Records - both names may be included.

Naturalization Records - Name of spouse and date of marriage

Military Records or Pension - may show spouse or have proof

Will & Probate - may list spouse's name

County Histories "MUG Books" - check all people with the same last names and known siblings.

Family Histories - published or Online - check/verify