Types of Marriage Records, by George G. Morgan

Marriages can be cause for great joy and celebration with families. The binding of two families together provides the opportunity for closer familial ties and, in some cases, the combining of family fortunes. From a genealogist’s perspective, a marriage provides another life event at which time documents were created. However, few researchers really examine the marriage documents and use them as clues to locate other records.

Types of Marriage Documents
There are several types of documents that may have been generated by the announcement and consecration of a marriage. These may include an engagement announcement published in a newspaper, a pronouncement of marriage banns, the issuance of a marriage license, a record in a county marriage ledger, a marriage certificate, the records of a religious institution, or a newspaper marriage announcement.  All of these provide opportunities for information to be recorded for posterity. Let’s look at the types of information each might include.

  • Engagement Announcement. Newspapers today still publish a limited number of engagement announcements. In earlier times, though, when newspaper space was at less of a premium and less expensive, a couple or their families might publish a notice of engagement. The couple’s names, the names of their parents and other family members, the couple’s places of origin, their educational institutions, their religious affiliations, and other details might be included.
  • Marriage Banns. This is an announcement of a forthcoming marriage, proclaimed in the church of the engaged couple on three successive Sundays. There is usually a record of the banns in the church minutes, and sometimes you will find them listed in church bulletins.
  • Marriage License. The marriage license was typically issued by the county or parish clerk in which the marriage was to take place. It always included the names of the bride and groom and the signature of the issuing clerk or ordinary. Sometimes the names of the couple’s parents are listed. Often the couple’s ages and their addresses are included. Other information varies, depending on the state and the county and municipal laws in effect at the time. A space for the officiating person’s signature and the date of the ceremony is also included.
  • Marriage Ledger. On completion of the ceremony, the signed license is returned to the clerk or ordinary for recording. The date and the name of the officiating clergy or other official are added to the license book, and entries are made in the bride and groom indexes of marriages. (These are often compiled at a later date in alphabetical sequence.)
  • Marriage Certificate. Some municipalities issued a marriage certificate on completion of the ceremony and when the marriage was recorded. Sometimes elaborate and complete with a ribbon and wax or metallic seal, these certificates were intended for framing or display. Sometimes the religious institution issued certificates on behalf of their church or regional organization. The amount of information on such a certificate varies but always includes the couple’s names, marriage date, and location. 
  • Newspaper Marriage Announcement. Newspaper announcements were not uncommon in earlier times. Some larger ones for more prominent society figures might include photographs and extensive details of the ceremony, names of family members and ceremony attendees, and announcements of the couple’s plans for honeymoon and residence. Less prominent couple’s marriage announcements might be smaller but can often contain details of the wedding; names of family members, attendees, and officiating clergy; and other pertinent facts.

Finding Clues
If you have not examined marriage records such as the ones described above, take some time to go back and look at them.  Newspaper announcements of engagements and weddings, like obituaries and death notices, can be filled with little details that can point you to other record sources. 

A completed marriage license can contain the name of the person who officiated at the ceremony. If you find a name succeeded with the initials J.P., you know that person was a Justice of the Peace. If you find a name succeeded by the initials M.G., you can be certain this represents a Minister of the Gospel. Even if the signature is followed by no initials, the person could have been a minister. I was pleased to have seen the M.G. following the name on the marriage license for one set of my great-grandparents. I had little information about them, but, when I saw the M.G., I decided to try another research avenue. I contacted the library in the town where they lived and asked that they search the city directories on and before the date of the marriage for the minister’s name.  The librarian found him listed, along with the name of his church. I then contacted the church and the secretary there was able to search the church records and found membership, baptism, wedding, and service records for both my great-grandparents. Their names also appeared in a small published history of the church.  What a bonanza!

If you are researching your African American ancestors, don’t be surprised to find that their marriage licenses and the resultant bride and groom index records are maintained in separate books. The segregation of races even extended to record keeping.  However, this can be a bonus in that it can help narrow your search to specific records, particularly when the given name and surname might have been common in an area.

Re-examining the Obvious
We often take marriage licenses for granted. We look at names and dates and simply record the data. We assume that all the information on them is correct, but that is not always the case. (One license I have shows the surname of SWORDS spelled as SANDERS.) We also always expect to find a license when, in fact, some were not recorded until after the ceremony — sometimes months or years after the ceremony. 

The point here is that you should take the time to re-examine the marriage records you have. If you have a marriage license, look at the name (and initials) of the officiating person and trace him or her to their religious institution — where you may just find more records concerning your ancestor. In the absence of a license, look for alternative records in the form of newspaper announcements, religious records, census records, and city directories showing the couple listed as man and wife.  Re-examine the obvious for facts that may not be so readily apparent and really think about what the data means. You may find clues right under your nose that you overlooked before.

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George G. Morgan is the best-selling author of “The Official Guide to Ancestry.com” and “How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy.” George and Drew Smith produce The Genealogy Guys Podcast each week (www.thegenealogyguys.com). George is also now teaching online genealogical workshops for Pharos Tutors and for the Continuing Education Division of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Visit his company’s website at AhaSeminars.com (www.ahaseminars.com)
to view his schedule of upcoming conference events.    

9 thoughts on “Types of Marriage Records, by George G. Morgan

  1. I have to take issue with this article. I don’t think it was made clear enough that an engagement announcement, a wedding announcement, a marriage licence and even marriage banns are NOT primary marriage records. They should be treated as very much a secondary source which may or may not indicate that a marriage actually took place.

  2. Two possible modern sources of records produced by a marriage are name changes–if the bride takes her husband’s name–at the state level and for Social Security records.

  3. Sullivan County, Indiana has marriage applications for a period of time. These include names of the parents, where they are living and also where and when they were born. I have connected many relatives based on this info.

  4. Privacy issues are making it more difficult to access information such as marriage records unless they are very old records. Even some churches may not longer give out this information freely.

  5. The article does not address the very difficult to find marriage records of any sort, of Jewish couples in the early 1900’s. Orthodox Jews seldom placed announcements, were often married by a rabbi in his sanctuary with only parents attending, and for a period of time, these marriages were not necessarily required to be recorded by a municipality.

  6. The article did not mention Marriage Bonds. Some states such as Kentucky required a marriage bond from the prospective groom. If the marriage did not occurr, this money was lost. Sometimes the prospective groom had to borrow the money–when this occurred, the lender’s name appears on the bond. Sometimes the lender was the soon-to-be father in law.

  7. I would like to hear more about marriage bonds. From the ones I have read, I question whether the parties actually had to deposit the money. It looks to me like they are merely promising to pay it if there turns out to be an obstruction to the marriage (like one of the partners already being married). The amounts of money ($200 or more) are large for those times, and I doubt many people had that much cash on hand. Was a bond forfeited if the parties called it off by mutual consent? I didn’t think so.
    Thanks for a good article!

  8. Small town newspapers often printed extensive articles on weddings and funerals, listing who attended from out of town and where the out-of-towners lived. This has given me clues to who was still alive at this date and where I might look for more information on this branch of the family.

  9. Your information on marriage licenses and their questionable information is so true. In fact, they are sometimes difficult to locate. My husband’s parents were reportedly married in 1903 in a Catholic church in the town where their families resided. However, there is no record of the event in the church register nor is there a record in the town clerk’s office. Apparently, the priest neglected his duties. The only record we found was a one-inch announcement in the local newspaper.

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