Why Do Marriage Dates Differ in so many Genealogies?

When you are researching marriage records, do not content yourself with extracted information only. Libraries are full of extracts of marriages, typed or printed on nice paper. Or conveniently searched through internet databases or on CD’s read at special computer stations. These extracts can be found for all of the Southern States–sometimes more than one version for each county in the state.

If you begin with these printed records, do not stop your search there for these reasons:

  1. Transcriptions often do not match the poor handriting of the originals. Unless you are trained to read old handwriting, mistakes are easily made. Compare the typed version with the originals and they often look like different entries. Just be sure to read the handwritten or the fill-in-the-blanks records too.
  2. The transcriber does not always remember to tell you which marriage document has been transcribed. (See checklist at end for the many documents you can find on the same marriage.) Is the date of the marriage, the date of the bond, the date the license was issued, or the date the marriage was actually performed by the J.P. or minister.

This is more critical than you might expect: the original record of the marriage, is often the marriage bond–especially in the South. When a couple posts bonds to receive a marriage license, the clerk enters their names in the marriage register. He may fill in the date of the bond, or the date the license was issued, or he may leave the space blank to fill in when he receives the returns from the official who performs the marriage. You have no way of knowing which date is used in the register, unless you also consult the other documents.

The clerk who issues the marriage license keeps the original bonds on file, in bundles for every year. When you write, the clerk usually checks just the register; seldom does he check for the original bond. And in most counties the registers are incomplete–there are about 30% of the bonds that never make it into the register!

Have you written for a marriage record or searched the marriage register on microfilm, expecting to find the marriage, only to find that the one you need is missing? LOOK for both the marriage entry in the register and a copy of the original bond.

The marriage return is the little stub that is sent back by the minister or the justice of the peace who performed the marriage. He may report to the county officials that he performed the marriage once a year. In some, the official came by in person and copied from a written list (or worse, his memory) those marriages he had performed into the report. He may simply send in a written list of marriages with names of bride and groom and the date of the marriage–I have seen some on torn pieces of envelope!

Many of the early marriages involved couples one of whom was under age. Consent for the marriage had to be given by the parents or guardian. You will find consent affidavits folded into the original bonds–little bits of old scratch paper torn off and in rough old handwriting. Or the parent may accompany the couple to the courthouse to assure the clerk that the marriage has the required consent.

Have you searched records where given names are missing, or the date is incomplete, or the place is omitted? One reason there are usually more consent affidavits and marriage bonds than entries in the register, is because the register is compiled from these annual returns.

If the couple goes into the next county to be married, very common where you have a large city, with multiple justices and a large cathedral nearby, the official sends his returns to that county. If that adjoining county did not issue the license, the clerk may not enter the marriage into his register. Most states require that the license be issued in the county where the bride lives. Once the license is issued it authorizes any minister or justice to perform the ceremony. This official can return the proof of marriage to his own county and not the one that issued the license in the first place. So you may get the return filed in one county and license filed in another.

Sometimes the marriage is registered in both counties. When you find this, it proves that the clerk makes the register entry as he issues the bonds or the license. He short cuts his work(why get the book out again). The clerk from the next county gets the return from the minister that he has performed the marriage and the genealogist is now confused as to where the marriage took place or when.

In the northern and central United States, where marriage bonds are not used, marriage applications are the original marriage document. The application asks for the name of the parents, birthdates or ages of the individuals, and may include their places of birth as well as other important facts.

The license, the bond, the consent affidavit, the application–none of these original records actually prove that the marriage took place. Each document may carry a different date! It depends which record the transcriber uses as to what marriage date is shown for your ancestor.

Use the bond date in lieu of a marriage date only when you have corroborating evidence that your ancestors were actually married: land sales naming both husband and wife, births of children, military pension claims submitted by widows, and so on.

And if you use the bond date, stipulate that it is the bond date. Couples have been married as much as a full year later.

Marriage Records Checklist:

Before the Marriage: Intent to Marry
__Consent Affidavits
__Declarations of Intent
__Banns (posted in the Church)
__Intentions (posted at town or county hall)

Pre-Nuptial Documents (to protect individual property rights)
__Marriage Contracts

Marriage Permits

After the Marriage: Proof of Marriage

__Marriage Certificates
Registration of Marriage
__Marriage Registers
__Annual Reports
__Endorsements on Licenses
__License Stubs

Marriage Returns
__Justice of the Peace

__Post-Nuptial Contracts (to avoid messy divorce proceedings)

These are official records and most of them are original recordings. In addition to these, there are many substitutes and marriage evidences you can use. See Afton Reintjes, “How to Document a Marriage,” Family History for Fun and Profit, 30th Anniversary Edition. The Genealogical Institute, Inc., P.O. Box 129, Tremonton UT 84337, for a checklist of these auxillary sources.

Most marriages can be documented, if you check all the sources that supply marriage information.  Your genealogy expert of choice, Arlene Eakle

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