If weâ€™re lucky, we have photographs of the happy couple on their wedding day–the smiling faces, the beautiful dress, the dapper suit. As they peer out at us from faded old photographs, we canâ€™t help but wonder what was going through their heads at that moment. As the curious descendants who are tracing their lives back in history, we know more about the course their lives were to take from that day forward. As they stood and posed for the photographs they probably hadnâ€™t a clue as to what life would have in store for them.
Learning more about our ancestors at this pivotal time in their lives adds romance and can really enrich our family histories. And information found in records created around the event can generate great leads in our family history.
Finding Marriage Records
A growing number of marriage indexes can be found online. At Ancestry, a search of the Card CatalogÂ using the keyword â€œmarriageâ€ turns up 346 databases that include marriages from the U.S. and beyond. Among these are statewide indexes and large collections from England and Wales (also know as Free BMD).
Check local libraries and societies, and include ethnic sources, even if your ancestors werenâ€™t of the same ethnicity. The Italian Genealogical Group, based in the New York metropolitan area, hosts a New York City Grooms Index for Kings and New York Counties for various years ranging from 1866-1936.
For more resources, check out the latest version of The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy (2006).
Pages 612-617 include tables of â€œSearchable Marriage Record Databases Online as of March 2006,â€ â€œBirth, Marriage and Death Records Published on CD-ROM as of March 2006,â€ and â€œStatewide Marriage Indexes and Records from the Family History Libraryâ€™s Vital Records Collection as of March 2006.â€
Once you locate the record in an index, be sure to follow up by ordering a copy of the original. Marriage records can be rich in information that will help you in your family history research and the full original record typically contains much more information than the index.
Where Were They Married?
While there are exceptions to the rule, most marriages took place in the brideâ€™s home, town, or church. Perhaps your ancestors arenâ€™t turning up in marriage records for the area in which you expect they were married? Do a little digging and see if there was a local â€œGretna Greenâ€ or marriage mill where they may have gone to marry.
The Nevada Marriage and Divorce Collection added this past week to Ancestry.com are testament to this theory. According to the press release,Â “Nevadaâ€™s reputation as a â€˜marriage Meccaâ€™ dates back to Prohibition days, when Californiaâ€™s three-day waiting period on marriage licenses pushed impulsive couples over the Nevada border–where marriage licenses could be obtained immediately.”
Similarly, many Chicagoans were married in nearby Crown Point, Indiana. According to Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research (by Loretto Dennis Szucs, 1996), “An estimated 175,000 marriages, many of them couples from Chicago and environs, took place in Crown Point, Indiana during the period from 1915 to 1940. Four justices of the peace in Crown Point. . . advertised ‘quick, painless marriages’ at minimal costs. They advertised in Chicago and other Midwest city newspapers, and on the Pathe New Service newsreels.”
The â€œVital Recordsâ€ chapter of The Source (by Johni Cerny, BS, FUGA) also mentions that â€œCincinnati, like many American cities, was a â€œGretna Greenâ€ (a no-questions-asked marriage locale in Scotland) for couples from up and down the Ohio River and from a wide circle of counties in Indiana and Kentucky, as well as Ohio.â€ It also mentions that many records were lost in a courthouse fire, but that some records have been reconstructed by local genealogists and the DAR through other resources–another great reason to consult organizations in the area for locality-specific information on vital record resources.
Incidentally, there is an index of marriages from the original Gretna Green in Scotland available onlineÂ covering 1795-1895. The index search is free, but the full details come with a price tag.
Where indices arenâ€™t available, begin your search on a local level. The USGenWeb page (http://www.usgenweb.org) for your county of interest may contain addresses and links to information on requesting records via snail mail, or in some cases online using a credit card.
Depending on your ancestorâ€™s religious affiliation and where they were married, you may also be able to locate a record of their nuptials through the church. These records can predate civil registrations and may be the only record you find for earlier ancestors. Churches open during the time period you are interested in can be identified through phone books, and for some denominations, through church archives.
You may find indexes to church records online as well. The Kendall County, Illinois, USGenWeb site includes indexes to Norwegian Lutheran Church records from ten congregations in the area.Â
In addition to the church marriage record, photographs and other images of the church itself can add interest to your family history.
If youâ€™re not certain of the church with which your ancestor may have been affiliated, check local histories for clues. In Henry R. Stilesâ€™ â€œHistory of Brooklyn,â€ Vol III, (p. 726), in a passage quoting an address by Archbishop McClosky, he reminisces that prior to the establishment of a Catholic Church in Brooklyn, â€œas a youth, when Sunday morning came, he, as one of a happy group, wended his way along the shore to what was then called Hicksâ€™ ferry, to cross the river, not in elegant and graceful steamers as now, but in an old and dingy horse boat; going, led by the hand of tender and loving parents, to assist at the sacrifice of mass in the old brick church of St. Peterâ€™s, in Barclay street.â€
Local newspapers may also include announcements of marriages. In cases like those mentioned above, where the happy couple traveled to a place with fewer restriction, or perhaps to be married amongst family in another area, wedding announcements found in newspapers may provide that critical information.
A Final Tip: Honeymoons and Anniversary Trips
You may also find couples traveling overseas for either a honeymoon or on an anniversary trip. I found a record of my grandparents returning from England in 1952 in the New York Passenger Arrival databaseÂ the year that marked their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Check local newspapers for announcements of anniversary trips like this one as well.
Even if we donâ€™t have that photograph portraying our ancestors on their wedding day, by delving into the records pertaining to their marriage, we can still get a glimpse into this very special day in their lives.
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Click on the images above to view a marriage certificate.
Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the “Computers and Technology” chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.