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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 5:  Marriage Records

Genealogists spend an immense amount of time searching for marriage records. They are valuable vital records — not just to prove our ancestors were legally married and that their children were legitimate, but they often provide us with the maiden name of our female ancestors. This in turn enables us to graft another branch onto the family tree.

Marriage licenses are the most common marriage records in the United States. The marriage certificates were often given to the couple after the ceremony and are usually found among family records. American researchers should conduct a search for a marriage license in the town or county clerk's office in the locality where the couple was living at the time, or if they resided in different localities, search in the bride's county or town of residence. Always check for the formal application for a marriage license, not just for marriage certificates and filed returns. This is particularly important for American research after the Civil War.

Family records (Bibles, diaries, journals, naturalization papers, widows' pension application files, etc.) may yield marriage documents. Additionally, military pensions and applications for same may include affidavits of eyewitnesses as to when and where a wedding took place, or statements by family members who attended the wedding or knew the couple for years. Marriages were often performed by military and ship's officers and were recorded in ships' logs, daybooks, and private journals.

American census records starting in 1850 are a valuable source for circumstantial evidence of marriage, as are census records of other countries, but be careful about making assumptions based on these records. Men often married women of the same given name. Cemetery records may be used for evidence pertaining to a marriage also; and don't forget to check old newspapers, city directories, voting registers, funeral records, and land title insurance company records, as well as records of fraternal lodges and hereditary societies.

Marriage information or evidence of a marriage can turn up in improbable places such as in probate records—where you may find wills, petitions, decrees of distribution, and agreements of heirs. Lawsuits may disclose marriage relationships—especially those in which the executors and administrators have to establish legitimacy of children and their right to inherit. Creditors often sued for debts, and you may find marital information in criminal court records as well. The fact of marriage may be established by direct or circumstantial evidence. Official or private records that attest to the fact that the parties were married are acceptable as direct evidence. Indirect or circumstantial evidence may be found in deeds or other documents that describe a man and woman as "husband and wife."

Sometimes you will locate a marriage record that appears to be that of your ancestors, but always consider the identity problem, especially when dealing with common names. Even with uncommon names, search all the marriage records in a particular locality and examine them for clues other than names — such as ages and names of parents or guardians — to support your conclusion that a particular marriage record actually is your ancestors'.

Few of us find marriage records for all of our ancestors. Some will never be found, due to courthouse disasters, wars, lost or destroyed records, or simply because they were never recorded by an itinerant preacher who lost them from his saddle bags while he forded a river on horseback. Moreover, a wedding might have taken place some time after the couple set up housekeeping and began to have a family — a not uncommon practice on the American frontier when clergymen were few with intermittent visits to far-flung settlements. Some marriage records simply do not exist, but never assume this just because you have not found the information yet. Search thoroughly, even in unlikely places, lest you overlook these treasured records.

Other types of marriage records

Banns. Usually read in church on three consecutive Sundays, or posted in public places, this church custom was common in England and in Colonial America.

Bonds. Posted by the bridegroom, often with a second person, usually the father or brother of the bride, these were to defray the cost of litigation in the event the marriage was nullified. It was asked to ensure that there was no reason, moral or legal for the couple not to marry and that they would not become charity cases.

Consent Affidavits. These were required in instances where the bride and/or bridegroom was under the minimum legal age for marriage. Sometimes a parent (usually the father) or guardian went with the couple and gave verbal permission; in other instances a printed form or handwritten consent was used.

Marriage records in the United States can be found primarily at the county and town clerks' offices, but in some cases they are found in the records of churches, ministers, justices of the peace, military, state vital records and boards of health offices, and colonial governors. The Freedmen's Bureau Online includes registers of marriages of Freedmen in various states (ca 1865-1875). Check U. S. Vital Records Information (states and territories) for those records — mostly modern ones — kept at the state level.

Vital Records: Pennsylvania Dutch Style

Quaker marriages

Love and Marriage in Colonial America

Notable Women Ancestors

Marriage records around the world

In England and Wales, marriage registrations are civil records and commence 1 July 1837. Prior to that date, the churches recorded this information and one could be married by banns (since 1215) or since the 14th century by license. The latter authorized a wedding without banns being proclaimed. Banns are notices, proclaimed in church, of a couple's intention to marry. This publicity gives people the chance to declare any reason why that couples cannot marry. Banns were rarely recorded until the 18th century. Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 confirmed ecclesiastical law by requiring that all marriages after 25 March 1754 (except those of Quakers and Jews) had to follow banns or be authorized by a license. Also see Tying the Knot: English Style.

Scotland. General Register Office for Scotland.

Scots Open Virtual Door to Their Vital Records

Ireland. Before civil registration, churches kept records of births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland. On 1 April 1845 the government began registering non-Catholic marriages and on 1 January 1864 the government began registering all Irish births, marriages, and deaths. Also try GENUKI (the UK & Ireland Genealogical Information Service) for some Irish records.

Denmark: Church records from 1645; civil registration since 1874; with some civil marriages for the city of Copenhagen, starting in 1851.

Norway: Church records from about 1688; civil registration since 1876.

Sweden: Church records from about 1618, mostly from 1686; civil registration since 1860.

Peru. In Latin America, the vast majority were Roman Catholics and marriage records were recorded in the records of the local parish or diocese. Some Latin American parish registers (such as Peru) date from the 1530s. Civil registration began in Latin American counties mostly after 1870.

Germany. Often called parish registers or church books, they include records of births, baptism, marriages, deaths, and burials, but also may include account books (which record fees for tolling bells, masses for the death, and so forth), lists of confirmations, lists of members, and family registers. The first surviving Protestant records are from 1524, but Lutheran churches in general began requiring baptism, marriage, and burial records in 1540; Catholics began doing so in 1563, and by 1650 most Reformed parishes began keeping these records. Civil registration began at different times in various localities of Germany. The earliest began in 1792, but since 1876 civil registration has been kept for almost everyone who was born, married, or died in Germany.

France. Parish registers or church books are where to seek marriage records. The keeping of Catholic parish registers was first required by the church at the beginning of the 15th century. The oldest surviving parish registers in France dates to 1334, but parish registers are rare prior to 1539. Civil registration began in 1792.

Canada. Marriage records are the responsibility of the provinces (except for the registration of Native Americans, which is a federal responsibility). In some provinces civil registration began in the 1860s, but complete registration in all provinces and territories from the 1920s. Church records should be searched also, especially for earlier records — Canadian Archives for Religious Organizations. See also Quebec Vital Records.

Italy. Stato Civile (vital records).

Poland. Vital Records.

Australia. Australian Registrar of Births, Deaths & Marriages. See also Australasia  Births, Deaths and Marriages Exchange.

New Zealand. New Zealand Births, Deaths and Marriages.

FreeBMD Free BMD stands for Free Births, Marriages, and Deaths. The FreeBMD Project's objective is to provide free Internet access to Civil Registration index information for England and Wales. Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths in the U. K. began in 1837. The FreeBMD Project will be allowed to publish online indexes from those records that are at least 100 years old.

South Wales Llanelli Marriages 1833-37, 1864-67, St. Elli Parish Church

WorldGenWeb Archives:
A sampling of marriage records to be found therein

Caribbean GenWeb (Islands of the West Indies)

British Virgin Islands

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)