Ah, marriage. It can be a beautiful thing, but it also can be very complicated and takes a lot of hard work. Thankfully, tracking down and understanding marriage records doesn’t have to be as challenging as the real thing.
If you’re looking for information about your ancestors, such as their parents’ names, birthdates, birthplaces, etc., marriage records are a great place to start. For many of my relatives, I requested their marriage certificates even before I applied for birth certificates. In my experience, marriage records have been easier to find, and have given me the information I needed to find the more elusive birth and death records.
Marriage License vs. Marriage Certificate
Many localities require individuals to file for a marriage license before they are able to legally wed. A marriage license is a document issued by the government that basically gives a couple legal permission to get married. In the U.S., some states have stricter requirements for getting married, like blood tests, while others are more lax. Depending on where a couple is getting married, there is generally a time limit linked to the validity of the license, and the couple needs to wed between that time.
A marriage certificate is the government document that “proves” you are legally married. After a marriage license has been signed by the officiant and sent back in to the government, the government recognizes the marriage (as long as everything was done legally).
Some states currently combine the marriage license and certificate, simply including a place for signatures and dates at the bottom of the license once the marriage has been completed.
Older Marriage Records
Marriage licenses started becoming the norm in the second half of the 19th century. Before that, it can be tricky to find a marriage record if you don’t already have a document passed down through the family. Your best bet might be finding marriage banns or documentation in the marriage register of the local church. Marriage banns are public announcements of an impending marriage, while marriage registers document marriages that took place in the church. These records aren't available in every location and/or church, but they're worth looking into!
What Information is Available
In my experience, when I have requested marriage records for genealogical purposes, I have been sent back both the license and certificate. Of course, it is possible that a couple filed a license to be married and then never actually got married. Things happen.
The marriage certificate itself usually just contains information about the wedding ceremony. In other words, it will tell you when and where the ceremony took place and the names of those who got married (bride/groom), who married them (officiant), and who can vouch for it (witnesses).
The marriage license contains more information, since it was required to “check up on” the people who wanted to marry. The license often contains information such as the ages, birthdates, and birthplaces (gold!) of the betrothed, along with the names of their parents (score!). Some licenses I have seen even list the occupations of the individuals getting married and/or their parents. It all depends on where the license was created and what the requirements were at the time.
Requesting an Ancestor’s Marriage Records
In order to request a marriage record, you typically need to know at least the names of the people applying for the license, the state where they married, and the year they were married, within a year or two. The more information you have, the more likely it is the archive will be able to find the records you’re looking for.
One of the best places to start is through a website like Ancestry.com or Familysearch.org, because these can help you search marriage indices for a license number and/or date. For instance, through Ancestry, I was given a “hint” for my grandmother that her name was found in the New York City Marriage Index through the New York City Municipal Archives. The hint listed her name, my grandfather’s name, the borough where they applied for the license, the date they applied for the license, and the license number. With this information, I was easily able to order this record through the NYC Archives.
If you know the state where the couple was married, simply google the name of the state with the words “marriage records.” Look through the search results for a state government website (a site ending in .gov)—usually through the state’s Department of Health. This website should have information on how to request records, including where to send in the application. Depending on how long ago the marriage took place, you might be contacting a City Clerk, Office of Vital Records, or the State Archives.
Some states allow online applications through companies like VitalChek. Others require you to submit a paper application. Sometimes I prefer the paper application because it allows me to provide more explanation to the archivist if I am not sure of a particular detail. There is typically a fee involved for searching for the record (whether or not they are successful in locating it). I have seen records cost between $10 and $25 dollars, with an average cost of $15.
If you aren’t sure of a particular piece of information—let’s say the state where a couple married—you may end up needing to submit several records requests. For instance, my great-great-grandparents lived together in both Oregon and Washington, but I wasn’t sure where they married and I couldn’t find them in an index. I ended up writing in to both Washington State and Oregon to request record searches. It can add up, but if you’re determined to find a record, sometimes your best bet is casting a wide net.
Hopefully that gives you an idea of how to obtain a marriage record and the type of information it could provide. Let me know if you have any questions. What is the most exciting piece of information you’ve found in a marriage record? Share in comments!