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Can’t find a marriage? Check for marriage mills

20140214Lake_County_Indiana_Courthouse

The genealogist in us diligently records the marriage date and place, and the family historian wonders about the story behind that date. If we’re fortunate, we may have a photograph of the happy couple on their wedding day, or some other memento of the occasion. A story may have been passed down through the family. Or not.

Sometimes the story may lie in some of those seemingly uninteresting facts. Have you ever wondered about the “where” of your ancestors’ marriage? Or perhaps you are wondering why you can’t find the marriage record in the county where you suspect it should have taken place. If you’re not finding a marriage record you may want to investigate whether there was a “marriage mill,” or “Gretna Green” in the area.

For centuries, prevailing laws (and disapproving parents) have thrown up barriers to young lovers wishing to marry. But when Cupid’s arrow strikes, those determined young lovebirds often fly off to a location where laws are less stringent.

In the late 17th and the first half of the 18th century in England, couples were required to post an announcement of their impending marriage in the form of banns. Banns could be waived by obtaining a license, but church officials could also dictate where and when a couple could marry. Residency requirements, although at times loose, had to be met, and there were certain times during the ecclesiastic calendar when marriages were not to be performed. There were also age restrictions; parental consent was required if either party was under the age of 21. Many opted for a path of less resistance on the road to marital bliss in the form of clandestine marriages.

The demand for clandestine marriages in London was met by institutions that considered themselves exempt from church canon and in some cases, like that of May Fair chapel, by a cleric who simply flouted the regulations. Prisons like the Fleet and the King’s Bench Prison became popular destinations for couples interested in quick, no-questions-asked nuptials because of the number of clerics imprisoned for debt who had nothing to lose and welcomed the income. Many of them lived in the “Rules” or “Liberties,” which were areas around the prison where prisoners could pay for the privilege of living outside the gates. (You can search London, England, Clandestine Marriage and Baptism Registers, 1667-1754 on Ancestry.com.)

With the passage of Lord Hardwicke’s Act in 1753, clandestine or common-law marriages in England were made illegal. Couples wanting to get around restrictions often fled to Scottish border villages in order to get married where the English laws did not apply. Gretna Green, Scotland, was one such destination. Located just over the border, it was one of the first villages encountered by elopers heading north. (Search Gretna Green Gretna Green, Scotland, Marriage Registers, 1794-1895.)

We see the same type of thing to this day. With no waiting period and no required blood test, Las Vegas, Nevada, has been a popular wedding destination for couples looking for a quick, no-hassle marriage. (Looking for a record? Check this index, 1956-2005.)

And there have been plenty of marriage mills in the U.S. You might not think of a small town in Lake County, Indiana, as a destination for marriages, but between 1915 and 1939, Crown Point drew the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Red Grange, and two of the Mills Brothers, thanks to some marketing savvy justices of the peace known as the “marriage squires.”

With its close proximity to Chicago, the famous were joined by many not-so-famous Chicagoans to be married in Crown Point, but the town had competition. St. Joseph, Berrien County, Michigan, also lured Chicago couples in the 1920s with a four-hour steamboat ride and less restrictions than the big city.

Less stringent age restrictions, medical test requirements, and waiting periods were among the reasons your ancestor may have chosen to marry someplace they didn’t call home. When you’re not finding the record where it “should” be, try looking into the prevailing laws of the time for the places they lived, and in surrounding areas. You just might find that marriage record—and a bit of a story to boot.

What marriage mills (and stories) are in your family tree?

 

 

 

 

About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

12 comments

Comments
1 R KeelyFebruary 14, 2014 at 3:01 pm

What is the name & location of the picture featured in this article?

2 Juliana SmithFebruary 14, 2014 at 3:43 pm

That is the old courthouse in Crown Point, Indiana.

3 Frank SperlingFebruary 14, 2014 at 4:49 pm

Interesting story Juliana. How does one even begin to look into prevailing laws of the time?

4 Juliana SmithFebruary 14, 2014 at 6:22 pm

One of the things I found helpful was newspapers, but there are a lot of ways you can find this information. Books on research in a particular state, or research methodology in general. or check wikis, like the Red Book section of the Ancestry.com wiki. http://www.ancestry.com/wiki/index.php?title=Red_Book:_American_State,_County,_and_Town_Sources The Indiana section leads with some of the prevailing law. http://www.ancestry.com/wiki/index.php?title=Indiana_Vital_Records

Another resource I have on my book shelf is “The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women’s Genealogy,” by Christina Kassabian Schaefer. A lot of great information in that book as it regards to women and women’s rights under the law.

Check out the periodicals of local genealogical and historical societies as well. They may have historical background on their websites. The USGenWeb can be another good resource. (http://www.usgenweb.org)

In some cases you may even find state statutes online, but the availability and format will vary by state.

My favorite way to learn about the law would probably be by following The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell’s blog. http://www.legalgenealogist.com/ She addresses topics like this with humor and in an easy to digest way. And if you ever get the opportunity to hear her speak, do not pass up the chance. She is fantastic. Hope this is helpful!

5 PhyllisFebruary 15, 2014 at 11:01 am

My parents went to St Charles, Mo. and lot of my relatives were married there. Apparently it was easy to get married there. Also Shawneetown, Il was an easy place to get married.

6 MaureenFebruary 15, 2014 at 11:40 am

I have 2 sets of GG Grandparents that I can’t find marriage records. They lived in Cleveland and Youngstown, but were born in Youngstown, PA and NY. I’ve only accessed online sources. Any ideas?

7 Mary Sanphilipo-WardFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Ellicott City & Elkton, Maryland are two such towns.

Ellicott City had the distinction of being the end of the streetcar line. People would all pile on the streetcar and head out of town for a day excursion. They would get married, then have a picnic in the country before heading back into town.

Elkton was so close to the borders of Delaware and Pennsylvania that it became known as the Gretna Green of Maryland.

8 RhiannonFebruary 15, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Many of my family married in Clay County, Arkansas. They had a “special” exemption from the three day wait period. The JP decided all marriages were special and would perform same day marriages. I had family travel from Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, and Texas to get their special marriage taken care of from 1920 to 1950.

9 Terence DavisFebruary 17, 2014 at 10:54 am

The town of Corinth, Mississippi in Alcorn County was a known marriage mill in the middle part of the 1900′s and maybe earlier. Due to its loose rules, and location near the corner of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama, it was a very popular marriage destination. My parents were married there in 1954. Every time I mention to someone from that area that my parents were married there, they reply that they hear that often.

10 Pamela Marie Galvan TamezFebruary 20, 2014 at 10:34 pm

I have been trying to find out if my GG grandparents Sea Captain Joseph Thompson and Mary Lucy Vernon were ever married. The fact is this that Joseph was married when he met my GG Grandmother Mary Lucy, we think in Ireland, she was a servant of one of his cronies. He was a very wealthy ship owner had a wife in England and they had 5 children already by the end of the 1850s. Mary Lucy was just a young girl when they met, he was about 30 years older than her. He set her up in a Mansion home in Liverpool England where she was born and then eventually brought her to America Madison Greenwood Kansas she had two children in England by him and the other four in the USA, all born by 1890. His wife died in 1884. He stayed in America that we know of and never went back, but when he came to America he brought 3 of his sons from his marriage so they knew about Mary Lucy. We know they told everyone they were married and if they were they would not have married until after 1884, no record has been found at all on them. I wonder if they were secretly married and it was not recorded. Where do you think we could look?

11 JamesFebruary 22, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Juliana, just as an interesting aside, you mentioned in the late 17th and the first half of the 18th century in England couples were required to post banns – I got married in Scotland in 1965 and we were still required to post our banns.

12 Friday Finds – 02/28/14March 7, 2014 at 5:30 pm

[...] Can’t Find a Marriage?  Check for Marriage Mills, Ancestry.com [...]

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