Title photo with early 1900's bride and groom
Genealogy Resources

Can’t Find a Marriage Record for Your Ancestor? 3 Reasons Why!

Can’t find a marriage record for your ancestor? Boost your genealogy research with these places and resources you might have checked yet!

I’ve looked….and looked…..and looked. I still cannot find it!

“It” is the marriage record for my 3rd great grandparents!  As I once again set out to tackle the brick wall of Joanna Barrett, I wonder what I have missed. I know I am missing a clue.  I can’t put my finger on it, but my “genealogy gut” – that genealogy 6th sense –  is telling me I’m missing something important. I’ve learned to listen to it!

[Okay, I have to ask. Does anyone else have a “genealogy gut”? :)]

3 Reasons Why We Cannot Find a Marriage Record For An Ancestor

As new genealogy researchers or genealogy researchers starting on a new family line, we are told to find the birth, marriage and death records and dates for our ancestors. After all, these records often hold lots of genealogical pertinent information including names of parents and other family members. 

But, let’s face it. Finding that marriage record for an ancestor can be quite a challenge. 

Why is that exactly?

Tan pin of 1920's bride and groom

1.The courthouse burned [flooded, blew away, insert any natural disaster here].

The destruction or loss of a county’s records is unfortunate, but did occur far more often than we like to think. I research a lot in the southern states where we tend to find a number of “burned counties”, and when a record is gone, well, it’s just gone. 

What do you do when the marriage records did not survive? You do have some options! 

First, just because a courthouse had a fire or is referred to as a burned county, do not assume all of the records were destroyed. Check anyway! Yes, chances may be slim you will find the record you are looking for, but do not chance missing a surviving record because you assumed nothing survived.

flames

Alternately,  look for non-county governmental records. In other words, look for records and resources not kept in the courthouse.

Church records are a good example for this. Seek out church marriage records or even newspaper accounts of an ancestor’s wedding.

Perhaps happily ever after was not the couple’s future, so check the divorce records. Early divorce records could be found at the state level records. For example, early North Carolinians wanting a divorce had to petition the state’s general assembly. [Read more about finding your ancestor’s divorce records.]

2. The couple married across the border.

Consider if your ancestors crossed the county, state or country’s border to get married.  Do not assume the couple got married in the county where they lived.  A number of reasons could exist for crossing a border to get married. 

First and foremost, what was the easiest place for a couple to get to in order to get married? Here’s an example:

I have ancestors who lived in Surry County, North Carolina.  Surry County is in the foothills of North Carolina (and absolutely gorgeous!). For some of my ancestors to get married they needed to cross a large river to get to the Surry County courthouse. In early spring that river ran high and fast due to melting snow from higher up in the mountains. Or if that winter and spring were especially rainy, that river was tough to cross! 

1860 bride and groom
Source: Library of Congress

But….. getting to the courthouse in Carroll County, VA did not require crossing a river and was a safer trip if a bit longer.

So, put yourself in your ancestor’s shoes. Think about what they needed to do to get married. How far would they have to go? What type of land would they have to negotiate? Were they breaking with a family tradition of some sort? Our ancestors did things for a reason and uncovering their reasons or motives, will help you find what you are looking for.

2a. They got married in a “Marriage Mill” or a “Gretna Green”

Your ancestors were in LOVE ? , but their families may not have been happy about it.

The couple felt their only option was to elope and get married in a destination where no one knew them.  Yep, my great grandfather broke his original engagement and headed across the state line to marry my great grandmother! [I really wish I knew the rest of that story!]

Or maybe the requirements to get married were cumbersome in the couple’s home state. Age requirements, medical tests, and parental consent were just some of the impediments over the years to a couple getting married.  

What the couple needed and wanted was a quick and easy way to married. The “industry” of marriage mills was born.

Marriage mills are those places where couples can go for a quick and easy marriage.  You may hear of these areas as “Gretna Greens”.  Gretna Green, Scotland (just across the English border) became a popular destination in the 1750’s for English couples to marry and became one of the early marriage mills. 

Las Vegas vintage sign

We see similar examples though more modern in the U.S. Las Vegas is a popular destination for couples to marry, but a marriage mill does not have to be a large city.  Other examples in the United States include Dillon, South Carolina for couples from North Carolina. Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada was a Gretna Green for New York and New York was a Gretna Green for Ontario. Other American examples include St Joseph, Michigan and Lake County, Illinois. 

Find many more U. S. Gretna Greens on FamilySearch’s Wiki.

Genealogy Tip: Seek out the locations of an area’s Gretna Green and check for your ancestor’s marriage record there.

3. The couple did not actually get married!

Sometimes we have to talk about the elephant in the room. Or the family tree!

As genealogy researchers we must take our blinders off and consider all possibilities. Did your ancestors actually get married? 

The couple you are researching may not have actually gotten married. No marriage. No record. 

The couple may have lived together. They may have even had children together, but never actually got married. Sarah Talley Blanks  (b. ~1800) of Halifax County, Va never married Langley Talbot despite having a long term relationship over 50 years.  As a widow, Sarah would have lost her property  to Langley if she married him and well, Langley had gambling issues.  She may have loved him, but she was not letting him handle her money. 

Maybe you have an ancestor who was a young widow with a small child, but no marriage record could be found. Sometimes, women chose to call themselves a widow who was deemed more acceptable in society than a woman who had a child out of wedlock. 

Consider all the possibilities.

Love was  (and is!) a complicated thing and no less so for our ancestors. Family expectations, burned courthouses, and unconventional domicile arrangements  makes trying to find a marriage record difficult at times. 

While you may not be able to find an official marriage record, you do have options for finding evidence of a marriage and/or a couple’s relationship.  Read How To Confidently Research Your Ancestor’s Marriage Records – Part 1 , How To Confidently Research Your Ancestor’s Marriage Records – Part 2 and  Find Alternatives To Vital Records When Birth Records (& Others) Cannot Be Found  to learn more.

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8 Comments

  • Joetta McCallister

    West Virginia isn’t listed. It I’ve seen many go to old County, KY and Gallia County, OH especially in the 1885 and later marriages.
    My 2x grandfather Dolliver Reese Holley, divorced from his first wife (huge surprise) and from Kanawha County, WV, married his second wife , Mary E. Armstrong, in Gallia County, OH in 1889.
    I found his close relative William Tackett, also from Kanawha County, marrying his wife Elizabeth Pauley in 1839 in Gallia County.
    I’ve wondered the travel logistics, the why but haven’t quite gotten that figured.

  • Janelle Holmes

    There is another possibility. Quite often we can find Bonds but no other record of a marriage. On the frontier or backwoods areas, you might be lucky to even find a bond. Many couples never got an actual marriage license after posting the bond. In fact, some never got married afterwards, at all. Many couples are shown in Meeting House records with intent to marry but no actual record of these marriages shows up later, although sometimes, it will be proclaimed by the Quaker Meeting that so-and-so attend the marriage (I guess to make sure it went through or to prevent unforeseen circumstances).

  • Donna Wakeman

    Another possibility, for marriages in the South during Reconstruction, was that there was no civil recordation of marriages because there was no civilian administration. This was true for my great-grandparents in Louisiana in January 1869. Their marriage was attested to by witnesses in a later law suit.

  • Nancy Whalen

    I found the marriage record for my immigrant grandparents in the Civil War Pension Records from NARA. After my grgrgrandfather died my grgrgrandmother needed to supply proof that she was married to him. Would never have found this as they lived most of their life in Southern
    New Jersey and they got married in Ellenville, NY up in the Catskills region of New York.

  • Shelley Stoye

    My grandparents were born in the years following the Civil War – grandmother from Waco, Texas, and grandfather from Rochester, New York. I’ve tried til the cows come home to find out anything about how they met, and where they married. I’m assuming it may have had to do with the fact that they would have been on opposing political views.

  • Mike Callahan

    I’ve got one from the days of vaudeville. The head of the company and his leading lady
    were reported to be married. His mother-in-law even appeared on stage and wrote about her daughter and son-in-law. Nowhere can I find a record of marriage. I believe it was common for
    such people to pose as being married because the head of the company had to pay for all costs associated with the tour. Posing as married saved the cost of a room and didn’t raise eyebrows when sharing a room.

    Cute side note. One vaudeville theater had a standing policy that there were to be NO mother-in-law jokes. It was standing policy and strictly enforced. The manager loved his mother-in-law and thought it was terrible when they were made the butt of a joke. Since this vaudeville company included the mother-in-law as part of their act, the manager had to make a special exception so the show could go on.

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