Weddings are a gift to the genealogist
Marriage records are invaluable when performing pre-1850 genealogical research on female ancestors. Prior to 1850 only heads of households were listed on the census. Locating that elusive 200-year-old marriage record could make all the difference in the quest for great-great grandmother’s name.
Here is a favorite wedding day photo of mine. The photo is from May 28, 1949 when my paternal grandparents, Jay Dee Fulkerson Jr and Loree Jane Ashley, were married in Flint, Michigan. Pictured with the new couple are both sets of parents.
Left to Right: Moman Harold Fulkerson, Lilly Mae Weatherspoon, Jay Dee Fulkerson Sr, Loree Jane Ashley, Sarah Eckler, Myron Ashley
Prior to this photo I had never seen a photo of my grandmother’s parents. In fact, my grandmother’s father, Myron Ashley, pictured on the right with a cigarette in his hand died the year after this photo was taken. His wife, Sarah Eckler, and my grandfather, Jay Dee Fulkerson Jr, both died before I was born.
During early periods in history, marriage was one of the few instances in a woman’s life when her full birth name might be recorded on documents. In lucky cases a bride’s parents may also be listed in the marriage record. Frequently, in the case of someone who was married more than once it can be a puzzle trying to locate each different surname, and surname changes are the cause of more than a few brick walls. Tracking down every marriage, and searching out not only maiden names but other possible surnames is a vital part of tracking maternal lines.
Frequently locating those marriage records can be a tricky endeavor because couples would travel to another area to get married. Other vital records searches are simplified by the fact they were typically recorded in the county or state where the person lived. Marriage records can be located in places the couple never resided.
My grandparents were from West Virginia and Michigan; they married in Angola, Indiana. Yet another set of grandparents further back in my line, both born and buried in Michigan, they married in Canada.
Tips while researching marriage records
- Always begin with searching for marriage records using the groom first; his surname was more likely to stay the same and if her surname is unexpected you know to look for other possible marriages.
- Don’t limit the geographic region of your search, people have been eloping forever.
- Marriage records can provide the bride’s maiden name….but not always… remember women changed their surnames, sometimes more often than we realize.
- Don’t disregard a record merely because both spouses don’t match. Dig deeper to see if it is truly different people or if there is more to the story.
Here is the marriage record of Lucy Bell Brown and Dallas Finley Shuck.
There are two things that could make this record tricky to locate.
- First, Dallas Finley who is listed only as Dallas F Shuck commonly went by the name Finley during life. You had to realize that his legal name was Dallas to locate this record.
- Second, Lucy was a widow when she married Finley so her last name is recorded as Jamison instead of her maiden name of Brown.
Till Death Do Us Part…. Or Not
On the flip side of the wedding coin another valuable source of information can be divorce records. While it’s easy to think of divorce as a modern-day habit, it happened more often than we realize in history. Ancestry.com has a wealth of historical divorce records on their site. Tracking down divorce records can make all the difference between accusing great grandpa of being a bigamist or realizing he might have had a few personality flaws that made him hard to live with.
My great-great-great grandfather, Leming Eckler, kept the marriage and divorce clerks of Michigan busy late in his life. I have found several marriage and divorce records for him dating from 1858 to 1907. As a male ancestor his surname never changed making following his trail possible. If he had been a female ancestor it would have been nearly impossible to follow the trail of rapidly changing names.
Divorce records also help to do something few other records do; they paint a more human picture of the person being researched. Most historical records show basic vital stats while divorce records might show character flaws such as abandonment, cruelty, or failure to support. They may not reveal some of the more flattering details of a person but it’s another way to see a new perspective on an ancestor’s personality.
From start to end weddings leave a trail to be followed
Marriage and divorce records can hold bits of information that can be vital to putting together the lineage puzzle. Locating marriage and divorce records can be challenging but the reward for success makes it worth the time investment.
Ancestry.com. Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867–1952. Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics.
Ancestry.com. Michigan, Divorce Records, 1897-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: Michigan. Divorce records. Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics, Lansing, Michigan
“West Virginia Marriages, 1780-1970,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FTHY-MZQ : 4 December 2014), Dallas F Shuck and Lucy Belle Jamison, 1926; citing Nicholas, West Virginia, United States, , county clerks, West Virginia; FHL microfilm 495,646