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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Why you can't find a marriage record for your ancestor

Learn why you can't a marriage record for your ancestor

Did they ever marry? Have you wondered whether you can find a marriage date for your answer?

Let's talk about why our ancestor's marriage records might be difficult to find and where else we might look.

Why You Cannot Find Your Ancestor's Marriage Record

One key fact that we search for to complete our family tree is a marriage record. We want to find the date and place that a couple married before they gave birth to our ancestors.

We want to find marriage certificates in hopes of finding additional information linking our ancestors to their parents and other family members.

Finding that marriage record might be difficult and here are a few reasons why.

They Never Formally Married

Throughout history, many couples faced various obstacles to formalizing their marriage. You may have heard of handfast marriage or jumping the broomstick. These are just two of the informal customs of uniting a couple when laws or customs didn't allow for a formal union.

They Never Married

Whether from nefarious reasons or not, some couples never married. A potential clue that a couple never married comes from the terms used to describe their children. If you notice that a child is referred to as illegitimate, bastard, or base-born, you might never find a marriage record.

The Marriage Records Was Never Created

Genealogy depends on time and location. In some areas, your ancestral couple did have a formal wedding ceremony. However, either the culture, church or civil authorities did not register the event. Learn the history and culture of the area your ancestor lived to discover when formal records were created.

The Marriage Records No Longer Exist

War, flood, fire, neglect, decay, and other disasters may have destroyed the records created to document your ancestor's nuptials. The FamilySearch Wiki is a great resource to discover the possibility of record loss.

The Couple Married in an Unexpected Location

Eloping seems to be my family's tradition, although my husband and I didn't do this. It's possible that couples eloped to get around age restrictions in the areas they lived. Perhaps they eloped because one or both sets of parents were against the union. Or perhaps the couple just wanted something simple. Look at the FamilySearch Gretna Greens in the US for possible places to look for your runaway couples. My colleague Lisa Lisson also refers to these locations as Marriage Mills.

Putting elopement aside, other couples married in different locations because:

  • it's where the closest church was for their religion.

  • a geopolitical boundary changed, even though they lived in the same location.

  • one courthouse was closer to the family than another.

  • the location was along their migration route.

The Couple Married Before or After the Date Expected

Sometimes we need to broaden our date for a possible marriage. Some women married younger than we would have expected. Sometimes a circuit court judge did not pass through an area until a few years after a couple married. Thus, the couple didn't record a marriage until that later date.

Watch this video.

Alternative Records for Marriage Dates

Is it possible to find a marriage date if a marriage record no longer exists or was never created? We have to look for alternative sources that marriage registers at a county or parish courthouse.

  1. Church Records - For many centuries, marriages were a religious ceremony. As such, the church recorded the unions of various couples in an area. Discover which churches served the locations your ancestor's lived in and explore their collections. Don't rule out the possibility that your ancestor married in a denomination they didn't worship in because it was the closest available for a couple seeking a church wedding. (Do you have Catholics in your family tree? Read about Catholic Marriage Records.)

  2. Newspaper articles - The printed press often recorded bans, licenses issued, marriages, elopements, and divorces. If you're really fortunate, you may find a photo of the bridal party and more. Don't limit yourself to marriage-specific entries. Obituaries, anniversary articles, and news features may also include the marriage dates and places.

  3. Divorce Records - While it seems like divorcements didn't happen in the past, they happened enough that many courts have distinct collections for the ending of marriages. Often, these records will have the date the couple wed and the date the union dissolved.

  4. US Census Records - The US Census records may not give specific dates and places but they can provide clues. In 1850 - 1880, couples were asked if they were married within the year before enumeration. From 1880 - 1940, couples were asked if they married. In 1900 - 1910 - asked number of years married. In 1910, 1930 & 1940 couples were asked which marriage each person was on (first, second, third).

  5. Passport Records - I have indexed a number of passport applications for FamilySearch. These records often provide a marriage date and place for a couple.

  6. Civil War Pension Records - A widow of a Civil War Veteran had to prove she had married the serviceman. As such, pension files had evidence of the date and place a couple married (or allegedly married).

  7. Family Bibles - This family history gem often recorded the marriage dates as part of the wedding ceremony. If you have such a book in your collection, treasure it!

  8. County Histories - While county histories aren't always reliable, some Mug Books have marriage dates that aren't available anywhere else.

  9. Funeral Homes - Peggy Clemens Lauritzen suggests we explore funeral homes. It's possible that such records have a marriage date.

  10. Scrapbooks - As you may know, I love creating scrapbooks. But so did our ancestors! Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, suggests we look for scrapbooks at local archives. In fact, she has a lecture about these collections that you can watch here Scrapbooks: A Genealogist's Gold Mine.

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