Are You Finding All Your Ancestor’s Marriage Records?

Marriage records are among the most common records that we look for in genealogy. But are you finding all of your ancestor's marriage records? If you stop looking when you find the one at the courthouse, you might be missing out on some.

Finding Marriage Records- bride and groom

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Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 30

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 16 minutes.

Start with the Civil Marriage Record

Civil marriage records are the ones filed with a government agency or office, such as a Probate Court or a Clerk of Courts. They are the easiest to obtain because so many of them have been digitized and made available on Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, etc. Many genealogy societies have also published abstracts of marriage records for their area.

Below is the civil marriage record for Henry Heinlen and Ella Smith, recorded in the Crawford County, Ohio Probate Court and digitized on FamilySearch. It gives basic information: the names of the bride and groom, the date of the wedding, and who officiated the wedding, "Rev. S.T. Street, Rector Grace P.E. Ch. Galion, Ohio." 

Heinlen-Smith Civil Marriage Record

But Don't Stop with the Civil Marriage Record

If your ancestor was married by a member of the clergy, there could be a marriage record at the church. The church marriage record could have information that isn't on the civil marriage record.

Here's the record of Henry and Ella's marriage from Grace Episcopal Church:

Heinlen-Smith marriage record from Grace Episcopal Church,
Heinlen-Smith Church Marriage Record

It reports that Henry resided in Bucyrus, Ohio; Ella lived in Galion, Ohio; Ella's parents were Mr. and Mrs. William Smith; and that the witnesses were "Miss Heinlen and Mr. Will Smith." In addition, the wedding took place at the residence of William Smith in Galion.

Newspapers Can Be Sources of Marriage Information

Marriage announcements in newspapers became more popular around the time of the Civil War. Here's where you have an advantage if your ancestor lived in a small town. The smaller the town, the larger the announcement in the newspaper. If your ancestors were from New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, their wedding announcement (if they had one) is likely just a line or two. Small town newspapers, on the other hand, often had lengthy articles and sometimes included photos of the bride and groom.

Here's the marriage announcement for Ann Madeline Rafferty and Frank F. Lenihan from the Irish Standard (Minneapolis, Minnesota), September 28, 1918:

Image courtesy Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

Not only do we get wonderful biographical information (parents' names and residences), we learn they were married at St. John's Catholic Church. (It's worth contacting the church for a marriage record.) But we also get information that won't appear in either the civil or the church record: the fact that only the immediate family was at the wedding due to the death of the bride's grandmother and that they honeymooned by taking a canoe trip down the Mississippi. 

Marriage announcements usually appear in the newspaper shortly after the wedding, usually within the first month.

Look for Milestone Wedding Anniversaries

If your ancestors made it to a milestone anniversary, especially their 50th wedding anniversary, look in the newspaper for an announcement. (Again, your small town ancestors have an advantage over their big city cousins in this regard.)

Golden wedding anniversary announcements often include biographies of the husband and wife, details about when and where they were married, and, if there was a party, who attended and the gifts they gave. It's not unusual to have photos of the couple, either present-day or a reproduction of their wedding photo.

Smith Golden Wedding Anniversary Announcement

Mower County Transcript, 12 December 1912. Image courtesy Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

Anniversary notices often don't appear in the paper on exactly the date of the anniversary. They are usually published shortly before or shortly after the anniversary or shortly after the party (if there was one). Be sure to broaden the timespan that you're looking.

It Wasn't Always "'Til Death Do You Part" - the Reality of Divorce

When you have an ancestor who seemingly dropped off the face of the earth and you can't find a death record for him or her, consider the possibility that the marriage didn't end with death, but rather by divorce.

The legal requirements for a divorce vary by location and by time period. An excellent resource to get started tracking down divorce records is the FamilySearch Research Wiki. Enter the location you're interested in and see when various types of records began and where they are located.

Finding Marriage Records

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  • I’ve found divorce records for ancestors and collaterals to be very revealing! Some are very short and some go on for years.

  • You forgot to mention specialty publications—newsletters and newspapers targeted to members of a particular ethnic, religious, and/or trade group. These may be especially helpful when researching people who lived in a major metropolitan area. (Note that many of these are/were published in a language other than English.)

  • I found info on my great-great-great-grandfather’s “divorce” from his second wife in a deed book where he agreed to not ask for anything she came to the marriage with if she would not ask for any of his current land holdings. What a great accidental find because we did not know he had a second wife.

  • One thing I’ve done if the couple was married by someone and I’m not sure if it is a minister or not is to search for the name in the nearest census to when the marriage occurred. I’ve had good luck finding the person I’m searching for and under occupation it will sometimes say “minister.” It may even give the denomination “minister, Methodist Church,” for example. Another strategy is to just google the person’s name. I’ve sometimes found the person with information about his church affiliation. (Apologies for using “he,” “him.” I’ve not run across a woman minister yet.)

    • City and county directories are also good sources for tracking down what church the minister was affiliated with.

  • Good reminder to assess newspaper articles. I had found an article from the NY Times on my 4th great grandparent’s “golden wedding” in 1863. Time to get out the article again and use the clues to find even more information about the family.

  • I remember being entranced by the divorce proceedings of my great-granduncle and his wife in a courthouse in Joplin, Jasper County, Missouri. You couldn’t tear me away from there! I do like looking for the church records because there is often so much more information in them.