Cake makers, florists and fashion designers are gearing up for a busy June. For months young women have flashed their engagement rings, looking forward to becoming a bride.
But before the happy couple walk down the aisle to take their vows, they will make a trip to their local courthouse and get a license for the big event. And with that action, they’ll be creating an official record for which their descendants might search during the next century.
So it seems an appropriate time for genealogists to think about the marriage records created by our ancestors.
Researchers sometimes get confused about “marriage records,” because that term includes more than one kind of document. The documents usually include applications, bonds, licenses and returns.
First the couple would go before the judge or another court official and make an application for a license. In many places, these applications have not survived, but those that have usually identify the parents of the bride and groom and provide the couple’s birth dates to ensure they were old enough to marry.
During some time periods and in some places, the individuals each had to have a blood test to ensure they didn’t have a venereal disease. Sometimes there were waiting periods between the time the application was made and the license was issued.
Prior to the mid-19th century, individuals had to post bonds to ensure the marriages were legal and that the events occurred as planned. A bond certifies that the two parties have agreed to marry. Either the groom or (usually) a male relative posted a bond assuring the state that the couple were able to legally marry. Through the bond he assured the court that neither of the individuals was married to anyone else and that they were not of a close blood relationship that would void the marriage.
After reviewing all the paperwork, the court official would issue a license authorizing any minister of the gospel or an authorized judicial official to marry the couple.
After the ceremony, the minister or other official would make a return to the court in which he would certify that at a specific time and place he had married the couple.
Inexperienced or sloppy researchers sometimes incorrectly record a “date of marriage” because they don’t distinguish among the application, bond, license and return. The date on the marriage return is the date of the marriage.
As with all records of interest to genealogists, the files may be incomplete. I have researched in numerous jurisdictions where only the bonds have survived. In such cases, a researcher should write that a couple married “about” a specific date and then explain that the missing returns prohibit the definitive identification of the date.
Next week “Heritage Hunting” will explore how to document nuptials when marriage records have been destroyed or cannot be located.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at email@example.com. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.