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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 3/1/2006

Proof of Marriage

I know they were married, but I cannot find it. They had to get married; after all they had children. Well . . . not necessarily. Usually a marriage precedes the children. It is finding the record of that marriage that sometimes creates headaches for the genealogist.

Genealogists should begin their search for a marriage record with the local civil records office (usually at the county or the town level) near where the couple lived early in their marriage and near where their first child was born. The records of the church of which the couple was a member should also be searched (if applicable).

Even if a marriage was recorded by the local government or the church, the researcher may not be able to find it for several reasons, including (but not limited to):

Even if the actual marriage record isn't located, there are a variety of other records that may show evidence of a marriage. These records are not typically thought of as marriage records per se, but they should be part of any comprehensive research plan. Some of these records will provide a specific date and place of marriage. Others will not, but should at least give evidence of a marriage and a date by which that marriage took place.

Estate Papers
Look for records of estate settlements for any estate to which either the husband or wife would have been an heir. These records can be especially valuable when a married female inherits as her husband will usually be mentioned. It may be that wives of male heirs are listed too, but that is less likely. Of course, the inheritance rights of the spouse are dependent upon state statute.

Land Records
When a man sells property, a wife usually has to relinquish her right of dower (readers unfamiliar with dower are referred to Donn Devine's article in Ancestry Magazine from 1995.

This relinquishment will at least indicate on which date the man was married. This record typically gives only the wife's first name and will make it impossible to distinguish between two wives if both had the same first name. Land records are particularly valuable when either the wife or the husband is selling an inheritance. If a husband inherits property, the wife usually will have to acknowledge her relinquishment of dower. If a wife inherits, the husband will usually have to sign the deed as well. These deeds, where all the heirs are selling a piece of real property are especially useful in locating spouses. Readers unfamiliar with these types of heirship deeds are referred to an earlier column Lots of Leads from a Little Lot.

Divorce Records
Was the couple divorced? If so, the divorce record should provide information about the date and place of marriage.

Court Records
If your ancestor was sued and the case involved his inheritance, there is a good chance his spouse would also be named as part of the suit. While these records typically do not provide a date and place of marriage, they will at least indicate a marriage had taken place.

Pension Papers
If a widow was to qualify for a pension under her husband's service, she would have to prove her marriage to the soldier. The easiest way to do this was to have a certified copy of the marriage record made by the record holder. Of course this copy would be a transcription, not a photocopy in the sense we think of today. The problem resulted when the widow did not know where she was married (or could not remember) or the record no longer existed. In these cases, affidavits from neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives would be needed to document the marriage. It may be that no official record of the marriage exists and that the statements of witnesses were the only evidence the widow was able to provide.

Naturalization Records
Naturalization records after the reform of 1906 were to include information on the spouse. These records may provide the date and place of marriage. The 1934 naturalization petition for Peter Verikios in Chicago, Illinois, provides the first name of his wife and their date and place of marriage.

Death Certificate
Most death certificates indicate the marital status of the deceased. More recent records may even provide the name of the surviving spouse. The difficulty with females is that one must have the last name of the final husband in order to locate the record. Keep in mind that the marital status on a death certificate may be incorrect. One relative is listed as being a widow when he actually was divorced.

Other Types of Records?
This week we've discussed the main records that one could use to find evidence of a marriage. There are others. When trying to find evidence that a marriage existed, ask yourself:

"What record might have listed these people as husband and wife?"

Any record that might do that (obituaries and census are other examples) could be helpful in your search. While any record can contain errors, one tends to put more credence in court, land, and estate records than one does in census records and obituaries.

Evidence Versus Proof
I have tried to be careful in today's column with the usage of the words "evidence" and "proof." Generally speaking, one document provides evidence of an event. The actual event may or may not have really taken place. It is up to the genealogist to obtain as many records as possible to determine what consistencies emerge. A proof consists of all the evidence located and the analysis pointing towards a specific conclusion. Unfortunately sometimes the evidence is not conclusive.

A case in point: The 1920 Chicago census lists Peter and Mary Verikios as husband and wife. That enumeration would be evidence of a marriage. It is not actually proof that a marriage ceremony took place, just that the couple were enumerated as husband and wife in 1920. Peter's naturalization record provides evidence that the marriage took place in 1922. The best evidence is the actual marriage record, which also indicates 1922 as the year of the marriage. Mary could not have married Peter by 1920 anyway. She married her first husband in 1909 and was not divorced from him until 1921. As an aside Peter and Mary divorced in the 1930s. He never married again. She did. On Peter's 1947 death certificate, Mary is listed as his widow. In Peter's last will and testament Mary is clearly mentioned as his "ex-wife" with her new last name.

When a search of the marriage records turns up nothing, consider other documents that may provide evidence of the marriage. Just remember that some evidence is more believable than others.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Michael John Neill's other genealogy articles