Marriage records are vital records that genealogists seek out. The reason is because marriage records hold a wealth of information about the people who got married. There might, or might not, be a record of your ancestor’s marriage.
In colonial America, the rich had a very involved courtship process that, if all went well, resulted in a marriage. These marriages were arranged for the mutual benefit of both the families. Marriages often took place in a church, and the church would keep a record of the marriage.
Colonists who were not rich often had what might be called a “common-law” marriage. There would be a private ceremony that often involved only the couple themselves. The arraignment involved a spoken marriage contract. Sometimes, a person would secretly hide a witness or two who would observe the marriage. Nothing was written down, and this leaves genealogists with nothing to find.
Many colonial settlements and states required couples to make public announcements of their intention to marry several weeks before the wedding date. Doing so gave people time to protest the legality of the marriage. The marriage banns were posted at the churches in the home parishes of the couple. After posting it, a man would secure a certificate from his minister to show that the banns had been announced. Some couples would also get a marriage license from a county clerk, but this was rarely done.
In the mid-19th century, states started requiring couples to formally apply for authorization to marry. The exact requirements differed in each state. In general, the marriage certificate would be issued to the couple after a short waiting period. Some states required medical tests. A marriage application holds some information (but not as much as a marriage certificate).
By the later part of the 19th century, States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry. By the 1920’s, around 38 states issued laws that prohibited marriages of mixed race couples. Other states had no such prohibition.
In 1958, Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, got married in the District of Columbia. When they moved back to Virginia, they were charged with violating Virginia’s law that banned inter-racial marriages. The Supreme Court decided, in 1967, that these types of marriage bans violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In the 1960’s, some couples rebelled against government authority by refusing to obtain a marriage license and choosing cohabitation instead. These couples never had a marriage license or marriage certificate. In addition, some very religious couples choose not to get a marriage license from the state in favor of marriage certificate that is signed by the clergy of their church.
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