The different types of marriage records that might be available for your ancestors, and the amount and kind of information they contain, will vary depending on location and time period, as well as sometimes the parties’ religion. In some localities, a marriage license may include the most details, while in a different locality and time period more information might be found in the marriage register. Locating all available marriage record types increases the chance of learning additional information—including confirmation that the marriage actually took place, the names of parents or witnesses, or the religion of one or both parties to the marriage.
Records of Intentions to Marry
The first type of marriage records fall under the category of intentions to marry. These records show that both parties agreed to get married before the actual ceremony took place. Here are several examples from different cultures and time periods.
Banns, sometimes spelled bans, were public notice of an intended marriage between two specified persons on a particular date. Banns began as a church custom, later proscribed by English common law, that required the parties to give advance public notice of their intention to marry over three consecutive Sundays, either in church or a public place. The purpose was to give anyone who might have an objection to the marriage the opportunity to state why the marriage should not take place. Usually, this was because one or both of the parties were too young or already married or because they were more closely related than allowed by law.
A monetary pledge or guarantee given to the court by the intended groom and a bondsman to affirm that there was no moral or legal reason why the couple could not be married and also that the groom would not change his mind. If either party declined to go through with the union or if one of the parties was found to be ineligible—for example, already married, too closely related to the other party, or underage without parental approval—the bond money was generally forfeit. The bondsman, or surety, was often a brother or uncle to the bride, although he could also be a relative of the groom or even a neighbor of a friend of either of the two parties. The use of marriage bonds was especially common in the southern and mid-Atlantic states through the first half of the nineteenth century.
In colonial Texas, where Spanish law required colonists to be Catholic, a marriage bond was used as a pledge to local authorities in situations where there was no Roman Catholic priest available that the couple agreed to have their civil marriage solemnized by a priest as soon as the opportunity came available.
Perhaps the most commonly found record of a marriage is the marriage license. The purpose of a marriage license was to ensure that the marriage conformed to all legal requirements, such as both parties being of lawful age and not too closely related to one another. After confirming there were no impediments to the marriage, a license form was issued by a local public official (usually the county clerk) to the couple intending to marry. It granted permission to anyone authorized to solemnize marriages (minister, Justice of the Peace, etc.) to perform the ceremony. The marriage was usually—but not always—performed within a few days after the granting of the license. In many localities, both the marriage license and the marriage return (see below) are found recorded together.
In some jurisdictions and time periods, the law required that a marriage application be filled out before a marriage license could be issued. In such situations, the application often required more information than was recorded on the marriage license, making it especially useful for family history research. Marriage applications may be recorded in separate books or might be found with the marriage licenses.
In most jurisdictions, individuals under the “lawful age” could still be married with the consent of a parent or guardian as long as they were still above a minimum age. The age at which an individual required consent varied by locality and time period, as well as whether they were male or female. Commonly, this might be anyone under the age of twenty-one; in some jurisdictions, lawful age was 16 or 18 or even as young as 13 or 14 for females. Most jurisdictions also had a minimum age, not allowing children under the age of 12 or 14 to marry, even with parental consent.
In some cases, this consent may have taken the form of a written affidavit, signed by the parent (usually the father) or legal guardian. Alternatively, the consent may have been given verbally to the county clerk in front of one or more witnesses and then noted along with the marriage record. Affidavits were also sometimes recorded to affirm that both individuals were of “legal age.”
Marriage Contract or Settlement
While much less common than the other marriage record types discussed here, marriage contracts have been recorded since colonial times. Similar to what we would now call a prenuptial agreement, marriage contracts or settlements were agreements made prior to marriage, most commonly when the woman owned property in her own name or wished to ensure that property left by a former husband would go to his children and not the new spouse. Marriage contracts might be found filed among the marriage records or recorded in the deed books or records of the local court.
In areas governed by civil law, however, marriage contracts were much more common, used as a means for both parties to protect their property regardless of their economic or social status.
Marriage licenses, bonds, and banns all indicate that a marriage was planned to take place but not that it actually happened. For proof that a marriage actually took place, you’ll need to look for any of the following records.
Records Documenting a Marriage
The second category of records indicate that a marriage actually took place.
A marriage certificate confirms a marriage and is signed by the person officiating at the marriage. The downside is that the original marriage certificate ends up in the hands of the bride and groom, so if it hasn’t been passed down in the family, you may not be able to locate it. In most localities, however, the information from the marriage certificate, or at least verification that the marriage actually took place, is recorded at the bottom or on the back of the marriage license or in a separate marriage book (see marriage register below).
Marriage or Minister’s Return
Following the wedding, the minister or officiant would complete a paper called a marriage return indicating that he had married the couple and on what date. He would later return it to the local registrar as proof that the marriage occurred. In many localities, you can find this return recorded at the bottom or on the back of the marriage license. Alternatively, the information may be located in a Marriage Register (see below) or in a separate volume of minister’s returns. The lack of an actual marriage date or marriage return does not always mean the marriage didn’t take place, however. In some cases, the minister or officiant may have simply forgotten to drop off the return or it wasn’t recorded for whatever reason.
Local clerks generally recorded the marriages they performed in a marriage register or book. Marriages performed by another officiant (e.g. minister, Justice of the Peace, etc.) were also generally recorded following receipt of the marriage return. Sometimes marriage registers incorporate information from a variety of marriage documents, so may include the names of the couples; their ages, birthplaces, and current locations; the names of their parents, the names of witnesses, the name of the officiant, and the date of marriage.
Historical newspapers are a rich source for information on marriages, including those which may predate the recording of marriages in that locality. Search historical newspaper archives for engagement announcements and marriage announcements, paying special attention to clues such as the location of the marriage, the name of the officiant (may indicate religion), the members of the marriage party, the names of guests, etc. Don’t overlook religious or regional newspapers if you know the ancestor’s religion or if they belong to a specific ethnic group (e.g. the local German-language newspaper).