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.