All U.S. states have some record of marriage certificates; however, the records are not at the state level. Ironically, marriage records began being regularly used earlier than birth and death certificates but continue to lack a standard form across all fifty states. Historically, Americans followed 16th century English custom of having ministers document baptisms, marriages and burials, which provide indications of birth, marriage, and death dates. The first American colonial law about such records was in 1632 and required each parish minister or warden to present baptisms, marriages and burials.
During the Antebellum period, contemporary views held that wives were the property of their husbands. Since American slaves could not own property, American slaves were not allowed to legally marry. After Emancipation, faced with a large population of unmarried couples, Southern courts recorded the freedmen’s marriages. Details varied but some document the length of the marriage and names of the freedman’s former owners.
Information provided in marriage registers and certificates varies depending on location and time period. Post-1870 marriage certificates generally provide
- Maiden names
- Parents’ names and residences
- Place of wedding
- Officiator of the marriage
Marriage cerificates are maintained by most county courthouses although some counties send them to their respective state archives. The Centers for Disease Control maintains a website at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm which publishes Where to Write for Vital Records -- Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces for each state. Facility rules and fees for examining and duplicating marriage certificates vary and genealogists are recommended to contact an employee in advance of a visit. Some researchers also use online services which will provide scanned or transcribed (typed) marriage certificates for a fee. The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection has extensive microfilm and transcribed marriage records. The Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources provides detailed information about these primary resources for each state.
Researchers seeking alternative sources for marriage dates and names of spouses may find success in census records, church records, death certificates, widow allowances, and wills.
Reading handwriting can be difficult particularly because previous generations used different symbols than are currently used. The library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains a Writing Guide for researchers reading documents dating from the 18th century forward. For those researching European handwriting styles, Great Britain’s National Archives has “Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting, 1500 - 1800: A Practical Online Tutorial” and Brigham Young University maintains Script Tutorials for Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
For more reading
Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc: Baltimore, 1974.