Whether it’s a shotgun wedding, a marriage of convenience or the blissful union of two people in love, the grand event generates both a marriage license application and a certificate. The terms are not synonymous.
A marriage license application - also called a marriage record or marriage return - is a standard form that local governments began requiring in the late 1800s. The prospective bride and groom complete the personal information section of the form and take it with them to the wedding. After the nuptials, the officiant – the person who performs the ceremony - signs and dates the form. So do two witnesses. The officiant takes the completed form to the government office where a clerk records it. The couple is then issued a marriage certificate. Either document proves the marriage actually took place. But the application contains the most genealogical data.
Applications and certificates originate as local records, usually in the county courthouse or town clerk’s office. That's where you'll find the applications, unless they've already been shipped off to the state's archives. Certificates were usually given to the couples and were often lost.
Examine the documents carefully to determine which day the marriage actually took place. As many as four dates - initial application, marriage, when the license was returned to the clerk and the recording – may appear on the paperwork. You’ll also want to note the names of the witnesses and the officiant since they were often related to the bride and groom.
Prior to the late 1800s, marriages were not always recorded by a government entity. Dates vary by state. What records do exist are generally kept in the state’s archives. The amount of data they have to offer depends upon when and where the nuptials took place. As time went on, more data was collected.
For example, John Shelley married Martha “Jenny” Dale in October 1872 in New Jersey. The record is a one-line ledger entry giving their names, ages, parents’ names, the bride’s county of residence and Shelley’s occupation. In 1879, following Martha’s death, John married Ellen Geoghagan. By then, New Jersey had expanded the form to include the birthplace of the bride, groom and their parents. Previous marriages were cited.
Marital history is extremely important. In this case, both were widowed. Geoghagan was the surname of Ellen’s first husband. Her maiden name was Brogan. An essential bit of data for her direct descendants. John and Martha Shelley had two sons. Ellen and Patrick Geoghagan had two daughters. Because the girls retained the Geoghagan surname, it's clear that Shelley isn’t their biological father. But on census records and even in John Shelley’s will, the boys appear to be Ellen’s biological sons, especially since John and Ellen had several children together.
Churches are another source of marital histories. The Catholic Church maintains meticulous records. If you know where your ancestors tied the knot, request the records from the Diocese responsible for that geographical area. Expect to pay about $15 an hour for the research. Other denominations also maintain archives.
Looking for marriage records in foreign countries? Save yourself time and aggravation by learning what records are available for the period you’re researching. You should also brush up on history and geography because the names of countries and their boundaries frequently changed.
Each country has its own procedures and record keeping methods. Church records often pre-date civil records. Catholic Church records date back to the 1500s in France, for example, but civil registration of marriages didn’t start until 1792.
The Irish government did not record non-Catholic marriages until 1845. It began registering all marriages as well as births and deaths in 1864. These records are stored at the General Register Office (GRO) in Dublin. The GRO split in 1921 when a northern counterpart was created to house records of residents living in Northern Ireland’s six-county region.
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