by Ruby Coleman
Marriage records are inconsistent from one county to another and from one state to another. At various times periods they were recorded in different formats and according to laws that are no longer in existence. During the colonial era many couples were married by circuit riding preachers who did not keep track of their marriages, baptisms and burials. In some cases, couples went ahead and lived together as man and wife until they could be officially married.
Some of the words that you will encounter in research of marriage records are the following:
marriage banns - notice of intended marriage published by a church and often read before the congregation; normally published three Sundays or holy days in the parish were the persons dwelled or wedding was to occur
marriage bond - document binding parties to pay a sum of money if the obligation of marriage is not performed; used in colonial era; usually paid by the father, brother or a relative of a bride; posted before a license could be issued
marriage license - document issued by a civil authority authorizing that the marriage can be performed
marriage record or return - report of marriage returned to the civil authority by person performing marriage
marriage register - record of marriages performed in a civil or church jurisdiction
bondsman or surety - person legally liable for the debt or default of another; they are shown as such on early marriage bonds
declaration of intent to marry - in some instances required before a ceremony could be performed
marriage contract - also known as a prenuptial agreement; normally used to protect property for children (in case of second or more marriages); sometimes filed in probate or land records
dowry - property a bride brings to her husband at the time of marriage
When you cannot locate a marriage bann, bond, license or record in a courthouse, check out church records in the area. While many couples were married by a justice of the peace, it is always worthwhile to research records of the churches.
On early marriage records, the bondsman or surety may be related to either the groom or bride. Their names provide significant clues when looking at other records, such as probate and land documents. In conjunction with the marriage bond or license, look for a letter or form signed by one or both parents giving permission for the marriage. This is good proof as to the relationship and age.
If you are using marriage records that have been recorded in an index type volume within the courthouse jurisdiction, ask where the actual records are located. These will sometimes provide more information and possibly conflicting information. Usually any extra papers, such as the permission letter, will be attached to the original document.
Always look closely at the names of witnesses. They may be related. If you are uncertain, keep them in mind when searching other records. Question who gave the information to obtain the marriage license or bond. In a marriage I have researched, the groom gave the information. While his information was all factual, the information on the bride was more than "stretched." Her age was much younger than her actual years and he called her a "Miss" whereas she had been married previously and divorced. Family information later revealed that a month later when his wife's young daughter showed up at their residence, he knew the truth.
If the bride and groom are older and particularly if they have been previously married, be sure to look for a marriage contract. These prenuptial agreements may be filed with the marriage record, but can also be found in probate files or even within land records if there is detailed information about the ownership of land.
In conjunction with marriages, two confusing terms are dower and dowry. In earlier times the bride's father gave her husband a dowry to help with expenses. This would be items she brought into the marriage, such as money, personal goods or even land. If you are lucky enough to find this type of record in the courthouse, it will contain good identifying information. Dower is the legal term designating the portion of a deceased husband's real property that is legally allowed to the widow for her lifetime.
If you cannot find a marriage record, keep looking in other counties nearby. I have ancestors who were married in the summer when the river was swollen. Since they had to cross the swollen river to get to the courthouse, they went the opposite direction to another county. Marriage records are more often found in courthouses than are birth and death records ... so keep looking!