Ah, February, how we do love thee! Valentine’s Day is a time for celebrating and remembering love, emphasizing its importance in our lives. As a genealogist, I use this month to focus on the couples in my family tree.
Looking at my own family tree over the past couple hundred years, I see marriages of convenience (weeks after a spouse died), arranged marriages (four siblings in family A, marrying four siblings in family B on the same day), multiple marriages (one ancestor outlived every husband and married five times!) as well as marriages that lasted 60-plus years.
This brings me to my first suggestion when researching couples in your family tree: Lose the romantic notions. I know, I know, it sounds cold but the reality is that marriage prior to the 19th century was most often about economic and social pairings rather than finding a soul mate. Keeping this in mind is so helpful when trying to make logic out of their decisions.
Marriage records were some of the first vital records kept. In the United States, new counties or towns began recording marriages shortly after they were established. Whether a civil or church authority performed the ceremony, local laws began requiring that the marriage be recorded in civil records. These records are usually stored with the town or county clerk where the bride and/or groom resided. Online sites like FamilySearch, Ancestry, and Findmypast each contain vast collections, as well.
As with most things genealogy, there are always exceptions to the rules. If you can’t locate a couple where they "should" be, look in a neighboring area. I found a couple who married in an adjacent county. After further research I realized that it was likely because 25 miles down the road, a bride could marry at age 12 with parental consent. (It was a different time, people!) Just remember that a couple may have gotten hitched where marriage laws weren’t as restrictive.
Some of the most common details you can expect to find on a marriage record are: Names of the bride and groom; age at the time of marriage; where and when the marriage took place; birth dates and places of the bride and groom; the name and title of the person performing the ceremony; information about the bride’s and groom’s parents; names of the witnesses to the marriage, often relatives; occupation; residence of the bride and groom; and whether the bride and groom were single, widowed or divorced.
To find a church record you will, of course, need to identify the church your ancestor attended. I suggest you look for clues in the information you already have. Look at other marriage records in the family line, or perhaps an obituary mentions their church or faith.
With just my family’s faith in hand, I reached out to the clerk in my ancestor’s small village in Italy to find that, at that time, there was only one church of their denomination. I requested the records and as a bonus, she sent me a recent photo of the church, which is still in operation.
As you look for church records, realize that they are less likely to be digitized than vital records and may be difficult to locate for certain time periods. They may not include as much information as vital records, since individual churches recorded whatever information they deemed important.
Besides civil and church records, you can also find clues to marriages in: family Bibles; newspapers, which often listed articles about engagements and marriages; journals, letters and diaries; church publications; wills and probate records; and obituaries and headstones, which may include marriage dates.
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a member of the National Genealogical Society and Association of Professional Genealogists. She is a board member as well as president of the Niagara County Genealogical Society. Send questions or comments to her at email@example.com.