In part 3 of this series, Back to the Basics with Marriage Records: Church Marriage Records, I talked about church marriage records and how to find them. While church marriage records are common and easy to find in Europe, civil marriage records are much easier to find in United States records. Part of the reason for this is that church records are private, while civil marriage records are public and easier to access. In my family tree, I have civil marriage records for almost all my ancestors in the first four generations. These are typically found at the county level. Almost all counties began keeping marriage records by 1900, with some starting much earlier.
Couples tagged with a blue “civil” box in this fan chart had a county level marriage record. Images of the marriage records are on the FamilySearch website, created by the county indicated. Two of these couples were married in Salt Lake City prior to when they kept county marriages, but church records exist for both of them. Daniel Elder and Jessie Ross were married in Hodgeman, Kansas, before the county kept records. We have an exact marriage date and place for them, but I’m not sure if that was passed down through family records, a Bible, or a church record.
In this post, I’ll share some examples of county marriage records, how to cite them, and how to analyze them for further clues.
Marriage License and Return in a Bound County Marriage Record Book
In the marriage license and return below (figure 1), Utah County recorded licenses and returns in their county marriage record book. It appears that the clerk of the county probate court filled out the entire marriage record, copying information from the marriage return. You can see that the handwriting is consistent throughout the whole record. By contrast, the marriage record from Lubbock County, Texas in figure 2 shows two hands, indicating the return was likely filled out by the person who performed the marriage.
Figure 1. Utah County, Territory of Utah, Marriage License Record 1:408, Charles C. Creer and Mary M. Peterson, 23 March 1892; image online, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939F-KP9M-1D : accessed 6 July 2023), image 422 of 808; citing the office of the Utah County Clerk, Provo, Utah.
Figure 2. Lubbock County, Texas, Marriage Record 1:549, Leslie Shults and Ettie Harris, 23 April 1924; image online, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GTMX-3GM : accessed 6 July 2023), image 922 of 969; citing Lubbock County Courthouse, Lubbock, Texas.
Often the county marriage record book is all that remains of the original records created at the marriage. Because these types of marriage records were held in the county courthouse over the years, they have been well preserved and are available for genealogists to research. FamilySearch has microfilmed and digitized most of the U.S. county courthouses records and made them available in the FamilySearch Library catalog, and many are indexed and included as part of a searchable database, like the Texas, County Marriage Index, 1837-1977.
Citations for Records in Bound Marriage Books
Evidence Explained discusses Marriage Licenses, Registrations, etc. in bound volumes in section 9.4 (beginning on page 434 in the third edition). When creating a reference note citation for a marriage record in a bound marriage record book kept at the county or town level, Evidence Explained suggests leading with the name of the jurisdiction who created the record. In most cases, this is the county or town. In figure 1, the county who kept the marriage record was Utah County. When this marriage record was created, Utah was a territory still, so I included that detail.
Utah County, Territory of Utah,
The bride and groom lived in Utah County. They were actually married in a different county, but the county where they lived is the county that issued the license and recorded the marriage return. This is not always the case – but is helpful to consider that our ancestors may have been married in counties outside of where they lived.
For the marriage record in figure 1, the marriage record is in a set of digitized marriage records with multiple volumes in the same digitized microfilm. I reviewed the images until I figured out how they were organized. Often the book cover or spine is filmed, making it easier to determine the name or number of the volume. In this case, the book cover or spine was not filmed. However the first image of each new section had a handwritten note about the volume number and the years it covered. Image 202 appears to be the start of the images of the same style, stating “Marriage License Record” at the top. This image includes handwritten text “#1, 1888-1892.” I surmised this meant volume 1, covering the years 1888-1892. Image 522 appears to mark the start of volume 2 of the Marriage License Record and includes the years 1892-97. The beginning of the loose papers with an index by the groom’s surname stated it was for Book #2.
With this information in hand, I opted to create my citation using the numbered volumes format. As shown in the examples in 9.4 of Evidence Explained, after the name of the series, in this case, Marriage License Record, comes the volume number, then a colon, then the page number:
Marriage License Record 1:408,
Next, I included the names of the bride and groom and the date of their marriage. If the names of the bride and groom are not common enough to have other people of that same surname married that year, you can simply include their surnames in the citation with a dash between them, like this: Creer-Peterson. I decided to include their full names, since I wasn’t prepared to review the entire year of marriage records.
Evidence Explained suggests including the marriage date in the citation if the year of the marriage register is not included in the name of the series. The year of the marriage is enough, but I like to include the full date.
Charles C. Creer and Mary M. Peterson, 23 March 1892;
The next part of the citation is set off with a semicolon, indicating that it’s a layered citation with a digital layer. The first part of this layer is the identification of the format – image online – and the website where it was found – FamilySearch. Titles of publications (like books, journals, newspapers, and websites) are italicized. Next is the URL of the site. You can choose to include just the main URL of the site, www.FamilySearch.org, or the full URL. Since FamilySearch uses archival URLs (indicated by the ark), I like to include the full URL. It makes finding the image so much easier for readers. An archival URL carries an assurance that the URL won’t change over time. I cut off everything in the URL after the question mark in order to make it shorter. Next is the access date. Optionally, I sometimes include the image number of the digitized microfilm. This is usually just helpful for myself when I’m browsing through different images in the set to learn more about how it is arranged.
image online, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939F-KP9M-1D : accessed 6 July 2023), image 422 of 808;
The final layer, separated by another semicolon, is the source of the source information. To learn more about layered citations and including the source of the source information, see Evidence Explained 2.33. Basically, this is simply the information the website provides about where they got the images. Sometimes that is the FHL film number, sometimes it’s the county office and location. The digitized images included a paper at the front of each section from the office of the Utah County Clerk, certifying that they allowed the digitization of the images. The letterhead included the place as Provo, Utah.
citing the Office of the Utah County Clerk, Provo, Utah.
The full citation is as follows:
Utah County, Territory of Utah, Marriage License Record 1:408, Charles C. Creer and Mary M. Peterson, 23 March 1892; image online, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939F-KP9M-1D : accessed 6 July 2023), image 422 of 808; citing the office of the Utah County Clerk, Provo, Utah.
Civil Marriage Records Can Lead to Church Marriage Records
Civil marriage records usually state who performed the marriage. This detail can help you locate the church marriage record, which may contain more information than the civil record. Church marriage records often contain more than just the names of the bride and groom, and may include the names of both sets of parents.
The marriage record in figure 1 is for my 2nd-great-grandparents, Charles Cannon Creer and Mary Margaret Peterson. They were married by an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Manti, Sanpete County, Utah in 1892. They were almost certainly married in the Manti temple that opened in 1888. These details found on the marriage certificate lead me to research in temple marriage records for the Manti temple. Temple marriage records are not online but researchers can go to the FamilySearch Library and view the microfilms, if the individuals are not living. Temple records for living individuals are restricted but can be accessed in the FamilySearch special collections by members. See Temple Records at the FamilySearch Wiki. Many other churches have similar restrictions on their marriage records. For example, see Roman Catholic Church in the United States in the FamilySearch Wiki.
In figure 2, the marriage record of my great-grandparents Ettie Belle Harris and Charles Leslie Shults, the person who performed their marriage was not identified by his title, only his name: W.E. Johnson. No details were provided about where the couple was married – what county, place, church, home, or etc. In order to determine if W.E. Johnson was a justice of the peace or a minister, I reviewed several pages before and after this marriage record. While many other officiants were listed by “reverend,” or “minister of the gospel,” W.E. Johnson never was listed by anything other than his name. My hunch was that he was a justice of the peace. I searched for him in the 1920 and 1930 censuses, but the William E. Johnson I found was listed with the occupation of auctioneer. I checked Newspapers.com and found an article titled, “W.E. Johnson thanks voters for their support.”
Although the article doesn’t explicitly state the public office W.E. Johnson was elected to, it seems certain that he wasn’t a minister of the gospel. It’s much more likely that he was a justice of the peace. Another article from 21 March 1922 was titled, “Col. W.E. Johnson Enters Race for Justice of the Peace,” confirming the hypothesis. This article also stated he was an auctioneer, and was running in Precinct 1.
Some civil marriage records lead to church marriage records, while others show that the couple was married by a justice of the peace or in a courthouse – so no church marriage record would exist.
Marriage License Application with Attached License and Certificate
My paternal great-grandparents were from Preston, Idaho, but were married in Salt Lake City, Utah. They applied for a license to marry in Salt Lake County, and their marriage is recorded there. See figure 5. This is the opposite of the situation in figure 1, where Charles Creer and Mary Peterson applied for a license in their home county and got married outside the county.
This marriage record is unique because it includes the application for the license to marry. The application includes much more information than the actual license and return: the bride and groom’s birthdate and place, occupations, parents’ names and parents’ birthplace and nationality.
Marriage Intention in a Town Register
My sixth great grandparents, Isaac Brown and Lydia Ingalls, were married in Andover, Massachusetts. Their marriage caused the town of Andover to create two records. The first was under the title “Intentions of Marriages Entered” in the volume entitled “Births, Marriages, Deaths and Intentions 1701-1800.” The 1789 section had the following simple statement:
Sep 25 Isaac Brown of Hilton & Lydia Ingalls of Andover
The pages are filled with couples who filed the intent to marry, each with just one line.
On 28 January 1790, Isaac Brown and Lydia Ingalls were married. The marriage was recorded in the same volume, shown in figure 7.
I also found that the marriage was recorded in a separate volume of marriages. Both entries were short and lacked a lot of the detail we hope for from later marriage records. However, these town registers often include much more helpful information than other counties, especially at this early of a date. As you can tell from the volume’s title, Andover kept track of births and deaths beginning early in the 1700s. What a treasure!
Civil Marriage Record from in England
My final example will be a certified copy of an entry of marriage from England. Figure 8 shows the marriage of my 3rd-great-grandmother’s sister, Elizabeth Miller, to Charles Gregory in Derbyshire, which took place on 14 May 1857.
The Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836 and Civil Marriage Act of 1836 provided for the creation of the General Register’s Office. Beginning the next year, births, marriages, and deaths were recorded civilly instead of only by parishes of the Anglican Church. The marriage act allowed couples to marry outside of the Anglican Church, then have their marriage recorded with the General Register’s Office. Prior to this time, only those married according to the rites of the Anglican Church, Quakers, and Jews were allowed to be married legally. This caused some marriages to go unrecorded, clandestine marriages to be performed, and non-conformist church records weren’t accepted in court as legal documents to prove lines of descent for property rights. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Register_Office_for_England_and_Wales). With the creation of civil registration in 1836, much more consistency was achieved with the recording of births, marriages, and deaths in England and Wales.
One of the special characteristics of these marriage records is that they include the bride and groom’s father’s names. This can be enormously helpful in determining if you have the correct person and tracing their line further back in time.
One of the challenges of these marriage records is determining which registration district to look in. The registration districts were not the same as Anglican parishes. In figure 8, Elizabeth Miller was married in the parish church at Tideswell, Derbyshire County, England. Tideswell was part of the Bakewell Union registration district. A great resource to help with determining the civil registration district for a particular parish is the FamilySearch maps website available at https://www.familysearch.org/mapp/. This interactive map is titled “England Jurisdictions 1851.” If you type in a place in England, it will help you determine the jurisdictions for that location, as shown in figure 9.
Once you have an idea of which civil registration district the couple may have been married in, you can search the birth, marriage and death (BMD) indexes here: https://www.freebmd.org.uk/.
I hope you have enjoyed reviewing examples of civil marriage records. To read the other posts in this series, see the links below.