Wedding Bell Clues

Wedding Bell Clues

Walk down the aisle into your family history and discover what marriage records and customs can reveal about your ancestors.

Marriage bonds — as in money, not the bonds of holy matrimony — were common in some states, particularly in the South, into the 18th century. They were posted in the county courthouse to help offset any costs of legal action in case the marriage was nullified. The groom and usually the father or brother of the bride posted a bond; if a woman posted bond, it may have been the bride’s mother because the father was deceased.

Licenses eventually replaced bonds in the 19th century. In some states, however, a license wasn’t required for a couple to be married, or the license might be recorded in a different jurisdiction from the marriage. For those states requiring licenses, keep in mind that couples sometimes took out a license or application but never made it to the altar. Make sure you follow through and look for further evidence confirming the marriage actually took place (a census enumeration, for example).

Where there are surviving marriage licenses, you may find a wealth of information on both the bride and groom, as this example of an 1860 license from Madison County, Va., shows:

  • Date of Marriage: November 27th 1860
  • Place of Marriage: at the residence of B.F.T. Conway, Madison County
  • Full Names of Parties Married: Catlett Conway Fitzhugh and Ellen Somerville Conway
  • Age of Husband: Twenty-nine years
  • Age of Wife: Twenty-two years
  • Condition of Husband (widowed or single): Single
  • Condition of Wife (widowed or single): Single
  • Place of Husband’s Birth: King George County, Virginia
  • Place of Wife’s Birth: Madison County, Virginia
  • Place of Husband’s Residence: Richmond City
  • Place of Wife’s Residence: Madison County, Virginia
  • Name of Husband’s Parents: James M. Fitzhugh and Mary F. Stuart
  • Name of Wife’s Parents: Battaile F.T. Conway and Mary A. Wallace
  • Occupation of Husband: Merchant

Signed by Catlett C. Fitzhugh 10 November 1860. The marriage was performed on the date specified above.

On the same date the license was taken out, Catlett and Ellen entered into a prenuptial contract, which included Ellen’s father, B.F.T. Conway, as the third party. This “prenup” wasn’t filed with the marriage records, but in the county deed books. According to the contract, Ellen was “possessed of and entitled to real estate and personal property of considerable value, the personal estate consisting of slaves, debts, legacies and money.” This property and any she would inherit from her father were put in trust with Catlett for $1 for her use and benefit. She could dispose of all or any part of her property by will or otherwise, and it wasn’t subject to any debts Catlett incurred. The property would pass to Ellen’s children or their heirs, but if she had no children, the property was to pass to Ellen’s blood relatives, “in the same way as if she had not married the said Catlett C. Fitzhugh.” This was during a time when married women had few, if any, rights. Once a woman married, all of her property — from land to slaves to jewelry to the clothes on her back — became her husband’s. But because of this prenuptial agreement, the property Ellen received from her father was hers to do with as she deemed fit.

So 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.), 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 <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): “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.

Southern Colonial planters: More than half of all Southern women married someone who lived within five miles of their home. Cousins often married, which tightened the family circle and kept the wealth in the family. Many women preferred to marry a familiar cousin rather than a stranger.

Virginia, a colony primarily established by unmarried men, suffered a shortage of eligible women into the 18th century. When a man found a suitable partner, he needed both his father’s and her father’s consent, especially if the young man was from a family of means. If his father approved, then negotiations would begin with the potential bride’s family. The bride’s dowry averaged about half of what the groom brought to the marriage. Weddings typically took place in the afternoon in the bride’s home, with the local minister presiding. A feast and dancing followed the ceremony and lasted until the next morning.

Scotch-Irish: While the Puritans often courted and married for affection and the Virginia planters wed based on social status, the Scotch-Irish had a unique custom based on their ancestral folkways. Bridal abduction — either voluntary, involuntary or a mock ritual — was a custom into the 18th century. President Andrew Jackson abducted his wife, Rachel Donelson Robards, who went voluntarily. The problem was that she was married to another at the time, albeit unhappily, and Jackson was arrested. (This was well before the election!)

Colonial Quakers: Though Quakers believed marriages should be based on true Christian love, this didn’t necessarily mean romantic or sexual attraction. True love was possible only between those of the same faith.

Proper Quaker marriages required several stages before the ceremony. Aside from getting parental consent, couples had to jointly announce their intention to marry before both the women’s and men’s church services (“meetings”). After a waiting period, usually two meetings, the men’s meeting formally approved or disapproved the union. Invitations to family and friends announced the wedding. The “ceremony” resembled a typical meeting for worship: Members arrived, took their places, and sat quietly. Those who were moved to speak did so. Toward the end of worship, the betrothed couple rose, declared their agreement to marry, exchanged promises, and sat down again. Then everyone went home. All or most guests at Quaker weddings signed the marriage certificate as witnesses, especially relatives.

No matter what the time period, culture or ethnic group, with additional research into courtship and marriage customs, you can find out how your ancestors probably behaved in the days of their betrothal and as they walked down the aisle. That’s as important a part of discovering your family history as the names and dates.

So did I ever find a marriage record for my maternal grandparents? Not exactly. The family Bible gave a date and a place: March 18, 1926, in Greenwich, Conn. On a research trip to Greenwich, I checked for a record. Nothing. Okay, I thought, I’ll check the town where they lived their whole married lives. Nothing. The church? Still nothing. Interestingly, in 1931, my grandmother bought property alone under her former married name.

Unless and until documentation magically surfaces, it looks like it may have been a common law marriage. In fact, maybe Grandma wasn’t even divorced before getting together with Grandpa. Hmm. Not exactly what my mother wanted to hear, but if true, it makes my family history a lot more interesting.

For further reading on courtship and marriage customs in America, see the following books. For courtship and marriage customs of specific ethnic groups, look for books that discuss that group’s customs and folkways, such as Italian-American Folklore by Frances M. Malpezzi and William M. Clements (August House)

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press)

Bundling: Its Origin, Progress & Decline in America by Henry Reed Stiles (Chapman Billies)

From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America by Beth L. Bailey (Johns Hopkins University Press)

Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America by Ellen K. Rothman (Harvard University Press)

Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman (University of Chicago Press)

So how did your ancestors meet and marry? Was he older than she or vice versa? By how many years? Was he someone she’d known for a long time? Was he a distant cousin? What were their expected roles in marriage? How did husbands and wives treat each other? David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press) and other social histories offer a sampling of many early American courtship and marriage customs. Here are a few examples:

Colonial English and “bundling”: The Puritans brought to New England many customs from England, but they rejected other traditions. Marriage, for instance, was no longer a religious ceremony, but a civil one, so if the terms of the union were broken, the marriage could be ended by a divorce. And instead of arranging marriages, the Puritans felt the couple should give their free consent. Love was considered a prerequisite of a happy marriage, so courtship customs were designed to allow couples some privacy.

One such custom was known as “bundling.” The prenuptial couple was allowed to share a bed, but a “bundling board” was placed between them. The young woman might also wear a “bundling stocking,” which fit snugly over both her legs like a large sleeve. Both men and women enjoyed this custom, as a contemporary song about bundling illustrated:

Some maidens say, if through the nation, Bundling should go quite out of fashion, Courtship would lose its sweets; and they Could have no fun till wedding day. It shant be so, they rage and storm, And the country girls in clusters swarm, And fly and buzz, like angry bees, And vow they’ll bundle when they please. Some mothers too, will plead their cause, And give their daughters great applause, And tell them ’tis no sin nor shame, For we, your mothers did the same. Some really do, as I suppose, Upon design keep on some clothes, And yet in truth I’m not afraid For to describe a bundling maid; She’ll sometimes say when she lies down, She can’t be cumber’d with a gown, And that the weather is so warm, To take it off can be no harm: The girl it seems had been at strift; For widest bosom to her shift, She gownless, when the bed they’re in, The spark, nought feels but naked skin. But she is modest, also chaste, While only bare from neck to waist, And he of boasted freedom sings, Of all above her apron strings.
 
Alternate Arrangements
 
When you can’t find a marriage record, try these other possibilities:

Newspapers: Look for wedding and anniversary announcements Obituaries may also tell when the person was married.

Census records: Particularly 1900 and 1910, which asked for the number of years married. The 1850, 1860 and 1880 censuses asked if married within the year, and 1870 asked for the month of marriage if married within the year. The 1930 census, which becomes available to the public in 2002, asked for the age at first marriage.

Estimate based on the birth of the first child: Once you’ve identified who the first child likely was, you can subtract at least nine months for an estimate of when the couple may have married. Don’t put blinders on, though: Couples often made sure the wife could conceive before they took a stroll down the aisle. And some couples may have used some sort of contraception to delay beginning a family.

Pension applications: When applying for a widow’s pension, women had to provide supporting documents to prove their marriage and birth of their children. Men, too, may have given marriage information in their pensions. You may find testimonials to marriages or the actual family Bible pages, torn out and submitted to the government to prove the marriage.

Naturalization records: Before 1922, a wife automatically became a citizen when her husband did. In post-1906 naturalization records, you may find the date of marriage recorded.

Court documents: Look at all the deeds and other court records the couple created. You might find mention of when a couple married, especially if a land transaction dealt with inheritable property.

Divorce petitions: Even if your ancestral couple wasn’t granted a divorce, always look for a petition. There are a significantly larger number of petitions than actual divorces granted. The petition may give you the exact date of a marriage or the number of years the couple was married when the petition was filed.

Home sources: Don’t forget that oral history, family Bibles, diary entries, letters and other family papers may be the best and only source for a date of marriage.
 
From the June 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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