Burned courthouses, poor record preservation and ancestors who didn’t marry where we think they should have. These are the main reasons we can’t always find an ancestor’s marriage records.
A dedicated family historian will never stop the search for the actual marriage record, but in the meantime, substitute records at least can provide evidence that a couple married, the maiden name of the bride and an approximate date of the marriage.
These record substitutes include military pension files, censuses, death certificates, probate files, land records, journals and old letters.
Military pension files were especially valuable when the soldier’s widow was applying on his service. She had to prove to authorities’ satisfaction that she had married the soldier and that he was deceased.
In 1841, my ancestor Mary Bass Richardson of Halifax County, N.C., applied for a pension as the widow of Benjamin Richardson. She gave an affidavit that she married him on Feb. 14, 1783. A bonus in the file was that Mary revealed she had first been married to Elijah Bass [said to be her cousin with whom she shared the surname of Bass] on Feb, 14, 1777.
Censuses supply bits of information relative to marriages. Although usually not earth-shattering, they can be added to information in other records to estimate dates of marriages. The population schedules of the 1850 to 1880 censuses asked if individuals were married during the census year. The population schedules of the 1900 and 1910 censuses asked for the number of years the individual was married to the current spouse. The 1930 census asked for each person’s age at his or her first marriage.
Even when a census didn’t require specific marital information, we’ve learned that we can estimate a date of the marriage based on the common knowledge that couples in the 1800s usually had their first child during the first two years of marriage. Of course, there is always a possibility that the first or first several children could have died as infants. For example, the 1850 census could show the first child was born in 1848, allowing us to estimate the couple might have married about 1846 or 1847. We have to keep in mind, though, that they could have married in 1840 and had children in 1842, 1844 and 1846, with none surviving to the 1850 census.
A person’s death certificate might identify his parents, including his mother’s married name. It is important to note the name of the informant who provided the information for the certificate. How is this person related to the deceased and how likely is he to know the mother’s maiden name? Again, this is valuable information, but it must be assessed and analyzed and accepted with caution.
A probate file, especially one of a person who died without a will, might reveal the widow’s maiden name and possibly a date of marriage to the deceased if she is applying to be the administrator of the estate or asking the court for property inheritance rights as provided by the laws of the time.
The real bottom line is that a marriage date and the bride’s maiden name could be revealed in many records, some of which you might not expect. This is just another reason why we must search in every conceivable record in which an ancestor might appear.
Next week, this column will examine the legality of marriages that were never formalized.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.”