Marriage records are one of the three vital records we rely on for identifying our ancestors and their relationships. They can contain the residence of the bride and groom, names of parents or witnesses, clues to religion, birth information, the bride’s maiden name, and more. Because of the legal implications of marriage, most U.S. counties began recording marriages early in the county’s formation. If the couple was married in a church, there could also be a church record. Unfortunately, sometimes the courthouse burned or the church flooded and these key records were lost.
What do you do when no civil or church marriage record exists because of record loss or lack of record keeping? Look for a substitute. Marriages can be noted in many other sources and this article will suggest several.
We always want to start with unique sources that have been passed down in the family. Perhaps there is a family bible, a letter, or a handwritten family group. A family member may have kept a scrapbook with wedding announcements or newspaper clippings. Seek out these records by contacting extended family members or searching manuscript collections.
For example, in researching my third great-grandmother, Cynthia Dillard (1815-1882), I settled on George W. Dillard as her father. No marriage record for Cynthia Dillard and Thomas Royston has been found so I only had an approximate date of 1833 in either Alabama or Georgia.
Hearing of my research, a Dillard descendant sent me pages of the Mahone family bible that included birth and marriage entries for the children of George W. Dillard.1 No Cynthia was named, but another Dillard female was shown to have married James Kivlin on 8 April 1830. (See the bottom left entry in the image below). Notice that the first name is missing. We wondered if this could be Cynthia but the marriage to James Kivlin didn’t fit. Looking at the bible page for births, we found an entry for Mariah L. Dillard who was born on 21 May 1815. Doing additional research and correlation, we discovered this to be the female who married James. I had found a placeholder for a female born in 1815 in the household of George W. Dillard in the 1820 and 1830 censuses, but it turned out to be Mariah and not Cynthia.
Mariah and James Kivlin were likely married in Muscogee County, Georgia, where George W. Dillard’s household was enumerated. That courthouse burned in 1838 and any marriage records recorded before that date were destroyed – which explains why I had not previously discovered Mariah Dillard.2
When no marriage record can be found, census records can give us basic marriage information. In the United States, the questions varied depending on what the federal government wanted to know for that year. If you’re lucky, your ancestor might have been married with the year, so look to see if that column is checked. Here are the marriage-related questions for each year. In bold are questions that provide good clues to narrow down a marriage year.
1790-1840: Tick marks noting females of appropriate age to the wife of the head of household
1850: Whether the person was married within the year.
1860: Whether the person was married within the year.
1870: Marital status. Whether the person was married within the year and in what month.
1880: Relationship to the head of household. Whether the person was married within the year.
1890: Marital Status. Relationship to the head of household.
1900: Marital Status. Relationship to the head of household. The number of years married.
1910: Marital Status. Relationship to the head of household. Length of present marriage.
1920: Marital Status. Relationship to the head of household.
1930: Marital Status. Relationship to the head of household. Age at first marriage.
1940: Marital Status. Relationship to the head of household.
1950: Marital Status. Relationship to the head of household.
For example, I could not locate a marriage record for my ancestors, Nancy E. Briscoe and Richard Frazier in either Arkansas or Missouri – possible locations for the marriage. With her first son born in 1866, I had estimated a marriage year between 1862 (when she would have been 15) and 1865. Using the census records I learned the following. The 1900 census reported that Nancy and Richard Frazier had been married for 35 years, giving an approximate marriage year of 1865. In 1910, the couple had been married for 46 years, putting their approximate marriage year as 1864. The census provides excellent clues but must be used in connection with other sources to give the best data. For this couple, the census showed a marriage range of 1864 or 1865. Fortunately, another record gave a more exact date – Nancy’s widow’s pension.
Pension records, particularly widow’s pensions, are excellent sources of marriage date and place. They are generally created many years after the marriage, so must be evaluated with other records, but a woman reporting her own marriage would be a reliable source. For example, Nancy E. Briscoe, applied for a Widows Pension in Oklahoma on 27 May 1915, based on her husband’s service in the Confederacy. Confederate pensions were issued by the southern states, not the federal government. Although Richard served in a Missouri unit, the couple moved to Oklahoma where Nancy applied and was granted a pension.
When I located Nancy’s pension from Oklahoma, the application clearly stated the marriage took place in October of 1863 in McDonald County, Missouri. 3 Checking record availability, I found that bushwhackers burned the courthouse in 1863, destroying most records. The first available marriage records begin in 1865, explaining why no record of the Briscoe-Frazier marriage does not exist.
When a woman applied for a pension, she often included proof of her marriage to the deceased soldier. It’s important to seek out these pensions and order the entire file to discover any marriage information. In the following image, see another widow’s pension application containing a “true copy’ of the marriage certificate for William Beck and Maryan Albright of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Mary applied for a widow’s pension in 1914 and provided her copy of the marriage certificate for proof. 4 This pension for a Union soldier was granted by the U.S. federal government and the National Archives in Washington D.C. holds the original records.
Newspapers can have marriage notices announcing the engagement, reporting the marriage event, and describing anniversary celebrations. First estimate the marriage date and place, then seek out the local newspapers that would have reported the event. This is often the bride’s residence. For instance, I was married in Salt Lake City and was residing in Provo, Utah, but my parents published my engagement notice in our local Idaho newspaper where I grew up and they resided. If you’re not finding a newspaper notice, expand to nearby locations or other possible residences for family members.
A notice for the marriage of David Matheson and Margaret Jane Caldwell appeared in San Francisco’s Evening Post on 17 January 1876.5 Notice that this marriage took place at the bride’s parent’s residence – a common occurrence.
MATHIESON -CALDWELL–In this city, January 13, at the residence of the bride’s parents, by the Rev Mr Fisk, David Mathie son, of Suisun City, to Margaret Jane Caldwell.
Yesterday was the fiftieth wedding anniversary of two of Cora’s most estimable citizens, Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Sargent. Fifty years ago this couple were married at Somerset, Ky., January 19, 1848. Through all the half century following they have lived a life of love, confidence and esteem for each other. Each has striven to make the other’s life more pleasant and confortable. Their pathway may not at all times have been sterw with roses, but in adversity and sunshine they have stood together, hand in hand, heart to heart.
This article provides us with a starting date and place for researching the marriage and may be the only reporting of the marriage we find. Additional information details their children and grandchildren, and their move to Smith County in 1879. Note that with the early marriage date of 1848, a civil record may no longer exist, but this newspaper announcement 50 years later is digitized and available.
An unusual newspaper notice described an elopement. No marriage record was found for the couple, but the 13 May 1940 news article described the circumstances and gives an approximate date.7
Divorce records can appear in any location and in any era. In the case of a divorce, that record could give the exact date and place of the marriage. Because a divorce would be granted years after the marriage and could be in a different location than the marriage, the divorce record could be available if the marriage record was lost or not recorded.
In 1814, Polly Royston petitioned the Georgia state legislature for a divorce from John Royston. A copy of the divorce petition can be found in the Greene County, Georgia, court records.8 Polly stated:
That on or about the day of February eighteen hundred and three your petitioner and her present husband John Royston were married according to the forms & ceremonies of the Laws of this state. . .John hath totally withdrawn from your petitioner his Love, esteem, confidence & affection hath for the last six years without any kind of just reason or provocation withdrawn himself entirely from the bed & board of your petitioner, leaving her with three small children to support & educate without any kind of aid or assistance from him.
The state legislature did grant the Royston divorce. 9
In the example below, L.C. and Grace Sutton were granted a divorce on 2 June 1942 in Calhoun County, Florida. The divorce record states their marriage date of 10 April 1938 and a marriage place of Chipley, Florida.10
Obituaries can also give marriage information – the spouse’s name, and even place, and date of marriage in more recent ones. A death certificate generally names a spouse but has no specifics on the marriage. For example, my great-grandfather, Charles Cannon Creer died in 1939 and his obituary from The Salt Lake Tribune states:
He married Maragret Peterson March 20, 1892 in the Manti L.D. S. temple.11
Although we hope to find an official marriage bond, license, or certificate – all is not lost if the record is no longer extant. Reasonably exhaustive research requires us to seek substitute sources when documenting a marriage. Family Sources, the census, military pensions, newspaper articles, and obituaries are some of those substitutes.
Where have you found a substitute marriage record? Comment below and share your experience with researching marriages.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
See the other posts is our marriage records series here:
- “Marriages,” Mahone Family Bible, digital images, emailed to Diana Elder 27 May 2020 from Rita Schimpff [ address for private use], the bible was in the possession of a descendant of Vesta Mahone Arnold who sent images of the original to Rita.
- Jaeger/Pyburn, Inc., “The Georgia Courthouse Manual,” (Georgia Dept of Community Affairs, 1992), 14; (https://www.dca.ga.gov/sites/default/files/courthousemanual.pdf : accessed 7 February 2023).
- Nancy E. Frazier, widow of Richard Frazier, application no. A2988, 1915-1924, pension no. P1077, Record Group 5; digital images, “Confederate Pension Records Database,” Oklahoma Digital Prairie (http://www.digitalprairie.ok.gov) : accessed 20 Jan 2019); citing Commissioner of Confederate Pensions, Oklahoma State Archives, Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Oklahoma City, Ok.
- Deposition of Claimant, 1 January 1914, Mary Ann Beck, Widow’s Pension Application No.1019869, Certificate No. 772729, service of William Beck (Private, Company B, 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Civil War); National Archives, Washington, D.C.; photocopies held by Alice Childs, Highland, UT.
- “Married: (Mathieson-Caldwell),” Evening Post (San Francisco), 17 January 1876, page 5, column 4; image, Genealogy Bank (https://www.genealogybank.com : accessed 12 November 2021).
- “Fifty Years Ago,” Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Sargent, Smith County Pioneer (Smith Center, Kansas), 20 January 1898, page 1, column 2; image Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/378304405/ : accessed 9 February 2022).
- “Missing Girl’s Elopement Feared,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 13 May 1940, page 4, column 4; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 9 February 2023).
- Polly Royston vs John Royston, Divorce Petition, Greene County, Georgia, Superior Court, September Term 1814, No. 11; photocopy provided by Betty Royston Brooks [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Royston, Georgia, 2016.
- Georgia, Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, Passed in November and December, 1816, Vol. 1, p. 127, Act 088. “To divorce certain persons therein named” Polly Royston and John Royston her husband; Digital Library of Georgia (https://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/dlg/zlgl/pdfs/dlg_zlgl_3494920.pdf : accessed 7 December 2022).
- “Florida Divorces, 1927-1950”, L C Sutton & Grace Sutton, 2 June 1942, Calhoun County, Florida; database with images, FamilySearch.org (www.familysearch.org : accessed 14 July 2020); citing FHL microfilm #008330383.- https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSTC-LQ6L-2?cat=655313
- “Obituaries – Charles Cannon Creer,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 13 December 1939, page 29, column 6.