Wedding Record Clues
9/27/2009
Walk down the aisle into your family history and discover what marriage records and customs can reveal about your ancestors.

Where can you find marriage records? You might find evidence of a marriage during a research trip to the courthouse, or get a record by mail from the state vital records office. You might get a copy by using microfilm at your local Family History Center. Or you may find the marriage certificate among family papers or find evidence of the marriage in a record such as a military pension application. Of course, you could also get a marriage record from the church where the wedding took place.

Although it may not be the exact same record in each place—one may be a certificate, another a license and return, another a bond—obviously there's more than one way to obtain marriage documents. Most researchers, however, first try the state's vital records office. Although statewide vital registration is fairly recent and many states didn't have mandatory reporting of births and deaths until the early 20th century, you may find marriage records for a much earlier time period. To determine where and how to get a marriage license and record, consult the most recent edition of Thomas J. Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook (Genealogical Publishing Co., $29.95), which will tell you when vital registration began in each state, as well as provide forms and fee information for obtaining birth, marriage and death records. Many states now have posted on the Internet the ordering procedures, request forms and fees to obtain vital records; some also include indexes. The Vital Records Information Web site, www.vitalrec.com, will tell you where to get vital records for each state.

The next place to look for marriage records is the town hall or county clerk and recorder's office where the marriage took place. Many of these records and their indexes have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, which you can access through a local Family History Center, too. Or you can write directly to the town hall or courthouse, giving the full names of both parties and their probable marriage date. Marriage records are usually indexed; however, many indexes are by the groom's surname only. If you know the church where the marriage was performed, also try there, too.

Johni Cerny and Sandra Luebking give an interesting account of a mail request for a marriage license in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy (Ancestry, $49.95): "I made three separate [mail] requests for a single marriage license to the same county. The clerk wrote back each time saying that there was no record on file. Upon visiting that county myself a few years later, I found the document in less than five minutes." The moral of the story: Always do the checking yourself whenever possible.

Despite the many different types of marriage documents that may have been created and recorded when your ancestors exchanged wedding vows, you may still have trouble finding a record of the marriage. After all, some never got recorded, and records do get lost and destroyed over the years. If you can't locate a marriage record, there are other sources that may give you the actual date or, at the least, will allow you to estimate the year the marriage probably took place.

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