by Lisa Cooke | Dec 14, 2019 | 01 What's New, Church |
Finding church marriage records may not be as easy as finding civil marriage records. I’ve invited genealogist Sunny Morton to share her best strategies for finding U.S. church marriage records from her new book How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide.
Strategies for Finding U.S. Church Marriage Records
Marriage records are part of that genealogy trinity of U.S. vital records. In addition to documenting the wedding, marriage records may also serve up the equivalent of genealogical party favors, such as the birth dates, birthplaces and sometimes even parents’ names of the bride and groom.
Civil or government records are generally the first ones we turn to in the United States. These types of records are commonly referred to as “vital records,” since they document important events in a person’s life like birth, marriage, and death.
Civil marriage records can be fairly easy to find and access. However, that’s not always the case. There may be times you can’t obtain a civil marriage record. If you do find it, it may not include all the information you were hoping for. And sometimes you’d just like to find more corroborating evidence or additional clues about their lives. That’s when it’s a good idea to turn to church marriage records.
Though not all of our U.S. ancestors were married in a church or by a member of the clergy, many of them were, so church marriage records may exist.
In general, finding U.S. church records is a two-step process:
1. identify the right church
2. then find its records.
However, this may actually involve a few additional steps.
I’m going to share with you the steps and strategies of this process from my new book How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide. Along the way we’ll see how they apply to a real genealogy case that resulted in success.
Step 1: Identify the Church of Your Ancestor
Identifying the church in which an ancestor married is key to locating any surviving record of it.
Let me give you the first and most important tip: the answer may be sitting under your nose.
What do I mean by that? Start by looking carefully back through other records you already have about the bride or groom. These types of records include obituaries, oral histories, county histories, tombstones, etc. Do they mention a church affiliation?
Example for Lisa’s family history
Even if they don’t mention a church, perhaps one of these records can give you a clue.
For example, let’s say the husband’s obituary mentions his lifelong religious affiliation, like Methodist or Catholic or Baptist, but not the name of the local congregation. My book offers several detailed strategies for tracking down the church name, but here’s one of the most helpful: Look at city directories, histories or maps from that time period to identify nearby churches of that denomination. Keep in mind that before the age of the automobile, people couldn’t travel far to attend church.
Let’s say you find both Irish and German Catholic parishes in the area. Based on what you already know about your family, with which did they likely affiliate?
If you’ve got the civil marriage record, look at the name of the officiator. Do you see a title hinting that this was a minister, such as “Rev” (short for Reverend)? (As an FYI, the initials “J.P.” stand for Justice of the Peace, a civil office.)
Occasionally you may even see the denomination written right in the record, as it is in the Colorado civil marriage record of Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman:
Colorado civil marriage record of Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman
Most marriage certificates don’t state a minister’s affiliation but searching with Google may be able to help you with that.
For example, the Indiana marriage certificate for another ancestral couple of mine identifies the officiator as “S.B. Falkenberg, Minister.” Googling that name, along with the keywords church and Indiana, led me to online books that identified him as a Methodist.
Additional digging revealed that “Somers B. Falkenburg”—probably the same guy—was specifically assigned to the Rushville Circuit of the Southeast Indiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1860. This was around the time and place I’m looking for that 1861 marriage record. (Learn to do this kind of digging yourself from my book. See Chapter 14 Methodist.)
Step 2: Find Where the Church Records are Located
Once you’ve identified the church, it’s time to search for congregational records that may document the marriage.
Your strategy may vary, depending on the denomination, the time and the place. Again, my book can help you: there’s a chapter with general strategies for finding church records and there are specific chapters on various denominations. Here are some get-started strategies.
Googling the Church
Find out whether the church still exists by googling the church name and location or using the online congregational locator tools I mention in the various denominational chapters.
If the church still exists, you’ll likely find a website, Facebook page, or other contact information. Reach out to their office and ask about their old records.
If you can’t find the church online, it may have closed, merged with another church, or been renamed.
Contact the Church Organization
You might turn to regional church offices or archives, such as those of a Catholic diocese or Methodist conference, to see whether they can tell you anything about that church or its records.
Each denomination has a different organizational structure. (See the 12 different denominational chapters in Part 2 of my book.)
An Example Search
Searching for church directories
Remember that 1889 civil marriage record for Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman I showed you previously? Let’s take a look at the process I used to find their church marriage record.
Since the civil marriage record told me that the officiator Godfrey Raeber was a Catholic priest, I turned to the annual Catholic Directory for that year to see what parish (local congregation) he was assigned to.
I googled catholic directory 1889 and found that year’s edition online at HathiTrust Digital Archive.
Keyword-searching within the directory for Raeber didn’t bring up any results, but I didn’t stop there. I paged through it until I found the listing for the diocese of Denver (it is now an Archdiocese).
I found the priest listed at St. Ann’s, but his surname was spelled a little differently, which is why I couldn’t find him with that keyword search:
Immediately, I googled St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Denver, Colorado. Nothing came up. So, I googled Denver Catholic diocese archive and found the archdiocesan archivist’s contact information. I called him and asked what he could tell me about St. Ann’s parish and its records. The parish had closed, he said, and he had the records right there. What did I need?
Hooray! I mailed him a check and emailed him the specifics of my request. He sent me back a copy of Mike and Mary’s entry line in the marriage register:
In case you can’t read it easily, the entry references their marriage on the 28th (the month and year, in preceding columns, are “ditto-marked” the same as the entry above it, which I can’t see, but I have the date already from the civil marriage record). Then Mike Fox’s name appears, age 23, “1” for his first marriage, Denver residence, son of Martin & Francis, born in Germany.
Similar information appears for Mary, the bride, though her surname is mostly illegible. These details (age, parents’ names, birthplace) were what I hoped to learn when I originally ordered the civil marriage record—but it’s not there. Only by taking the extra steps to find the church marriage record did I uncover these additional details.
I’m still looking for a Methodist record of that marriage recorded by S.B. Falkenberg. I’m guessing his was a traveling assignment covering many small towns, which means his own personal log book may have been the only place he would have created a record, if indeed he did. The records of itinerant ministers are not easy to find.
The Search for Church Marriage Records Can Lead to More Gems
It’s true that you won’t always find church records of ancestors’ marriages or other life events such as births, baptisms, deaths or burials.
Sometimes the records weren’t created; for example, Baptists didn’t generally record marriages, as they weren’t considered a religious rite.
Or perhaps membership records have been destroyed or lost.
Occasionally, you’ll track down the records only to find they aren’t accessible to researchers. That’s sometimes true for Catholic sacramental records, which are confidential—though many church or archive offices will release copies or transcriptions of older records.
But while following the process for church records, you may discover other gems that can add color to your family history stories.
For example, when I was looking for Catholic parish records in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, I found a short history of the church. It described the devotion of its earliest members, who raised the funds to erect their building and even helped dig its foundations. Though I can’t prove it, I have reason to believe this family was part of that devoted group.
Other times, you may find photos, directories, reminiscences or other records that give you a glimpse of your ancestors’ church community life.
A Genealogist’s Guide to Finding Church Records
While the 2-step process for finding church marriage records is straight-forward, each case requires unique resources. In How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide which I wrote with Harold Henderson, CG lays out a plethora of specific resources for the major Christian denominations in the U.S. before 1900:
• Dutch Reformed,
• Latter-day Saint,
• Roman Catholic,
• and various German churches.
More than 30 archivists, historians, and genealogical experts in specific faith traditions have contributed their knowledge to the book.
Church records won’t always be your genealogical salvation, but every so often—hallelujah!—they will prove to be your saving grace.
About the Author
Sunny Morton (along with Harold A. Henderson, CG) is the author of the books How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide, and My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories. She is also a contributing editor to Family Tree Magazine.
(Disclosure: Genealogy Gems is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Thank you for supporting articles like these by using our link.)
by Lisa Cooke | May 3, 2014 | 01 What's New, Brick Wall, Google, Inspiration
Cold Case files are as common in genealogy as they are in criminal investigations. So it seemed a no brainer to me that family historians could incorporate some of the same techniques that cold case investigators use. And that is how my presentation How to Reopen and Work a Genealogical Cold Case was born.
I recently brought this exciting hour to the folks at the Williamson County Texas Genealogical Society and they embraced it with open arms. Eyes were lighting up, and there was excitement in the air at the prospect of pulling some of those dusty old brick walls off their genealogical office shelves. I warned the group that they would be blaming for a sleepless night that night as they burned the midnight oil putting the tips to work. And as always, I encourage them to let me in on their successes by dropping me an email. I never cease to be amazed at what my wonderful audiences accomplishes!
An email from Teresa Hankins of Round Rock, TX landed in my inbox the very next morning, and her message was inspiring:
“I attended your lecture on Genealogical Cold Cases at the Williamson County Genealogical Society’s meeting just last night. It was late when I got home, but I wanted to check out some of your suggestions on cracking hard cases. I was particularly interested in Google Books, as I had just recently discovered it, but hadn’t used it much.
The Case: My 2nd great-grandfather, Joshua, was too young to serve in American Civil War, but he had nine brothers who did serve. These brothers are what first prompted my interest in genealogy, and I’ve spent untold hours reconstructing their movements and histories.
One of the most poignant stories is that of David, the youngest of the nine. He couldn’t have been more than 17 years old when he joined the Union regiment. He was wounded at the Battle of Lone Jack, discharged, and then married Margaret, a young lady from a neighboring farm. They had one child, named Thomas, and then David was murdered by bushwhackers. His young bride remarried and had two more children before she, too, passed away at a young age. My unsolvable case was with Thomas, son of David and Margaret, who seemed to vanish from history. He lost his father when he was an infant, his mother when he was about 12, and I wanted to know what happened to him!
Like all good genealogists, I was only going to research a little before going to bed. I wanted to play around on Google Books and see how the searches worked. I typed in a few key words that were unsuccessful before settling on a group of books based on Benton County, Missouri, which is where most of my ancestors in this line resided. I was just clicking on a book and searching for the surname, not looking for anything in particular. I only wanted to see what would come up and how the search engine worked. The next thing I know, I am looking at a record from the Supreme Court of Missouri, regarding some sort of land dispute. There are all the names involved, Thomas, his two half siblings, another family that I know are neighbors and relatives! I now know the month and year that Thomas died. I know that he sold some land one of his uncles. He was living there among family and friends, and though he, too, died young, at least I know what happened! This has opened up a cold case, and now it is on fire with new leads. I can’t wait to see what else I can dig up on Google Books!
Thank you for all the useful information you shared. I learned so much. I can’t wait to try out your other suggestions. You said to send you an email if we cracked a cold case, and that is what I’m doing. Have a blessed day!”
Well, I feel blessed every time I hear from my fabulous students / listeners / readers! I’m a lucky girl!
And I received one more blessing in Round Rock: At long last I finally got to meet my cousin Carolyn. You “met” Carolyn on the free Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast episodes about contacting living relatives (see below for links.) Carolyn and I have been collaborating online for nearly ten years on our family history (her mother is my Grandmother’s sister) but we never had the opportunity to meet in person until now. She’s as sweet and warm as she is on the phone – it’s not wonder she has such great success reaching out to family relations.
It’s wonderful to hear from folks about how they have benefited from something I’ve shared, but I could write volumes on the blessings I’ve received in this job that I love.
Heritage Quilts Video with Carolyn: featuring a quilt in our family. Each block features one of our female ancestors.
Episode 14: How to Contact Long-Lost Relatives
Connecting with someone who knows about our ancestors can really boost our research results—and even create new relationships among living kin. But it’s not always easy to send that first email or make that first call. In this episode, we chat with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has mastered the art of “genealogical cold calling” by conducting hundreds of telephone interviews. She has a knack for quickly connecting with folks she doesn’t know over the telephone in ways that put them at ease and bring to light the information that she’s looking for.
Episode 15: More Tips for Contacting Distant Relatives
In this episode we talk more about “genealogical cold calling” with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has conducted hundreds of telephone interviews. Relationships are key to genealogical success and by following 14 genealogical cold calling strategies you will find your research relationships multiplying.
A one hour video of Lisa’s class on Genealogical Cold Cases is part of Genealogy Gems Premium Membership. Click here to become a Member.
by Lisa Cooke | Jun 28, 2015 | 01 What's New, Ancestry, images, Listeners & Readers, Source Citation, Trees
Recently we reported changes in the Ancestry.com site, now available to all U.S. customers. Genealogy Gems follower Nora then emailed us with three things she loves about the new Ancestry experience, and her instructions for merging facts related to the same life event. Below are her comments; I’ve added screen shots for the sake of illustration that don’t pertain to Nora’s ancestors.
“I’ve been playing around with the new version of Ancestry.com, and have the following comments:
1. YES, NO, MAYBE SO. “I LOVE that in the “hints”, it now asks you if the facts match your ancestor, and you have “Yes,” “No” and “Maybe” options.
In some cases, it is clearly not your ancestor, but sometimes you just aren’t sure. If you click “Yes,” you get the usual screen where you compare the items in the record to your tree and decide which points you want to use as “preferred” before you save the source to the individual in your tree.
If you click “No”, the hint gets put in the “Ignored” list. Yes, you could always go back and review these again, but you had to dig through all the entries that clearly did not relate to your ancestor. With the addition of “Maybe” there is now an “Undecided” list. If you think it is possible that this is your ancestor, but don’t yet have any additional information that would support an unconditional “Yes, save this to my ancestor” reaction, you can click “Maybe.” Then, when something else shows up in your research that supports that hint, you can search back through the “Undecided” list under hints for that ancestor, and maybe go ahead and save the info to them in your tree.
THUMBS-UP ON LIFESTORY VIEW. “I quite like the LifeStory view, especially as it gives the option to remove items you don’t want to include. For instance, the 1860 U.S. Federal census shows my ancestor as residing in New York, NY. She was actually visiting her parents with her firstborn, a toddler son named for her father. Her actual home at the time was in California.
Because I entered the census info on Ancestry, her LifeStory suddenly included “current event” items for New York in the years between the 1860 and 1870 censuses. While these are appropriate in her parents’ records, they are not applicable to her, as she returned to California and her husband.
EASIER TO MERGE FACTS. “On each ancestor’s Facts tab, it is now so easy to combine duplicates of life events that came from different sources! I’ve been doing editing there and then syncing with my Family Tree Maker tree. The page shows the list of facts for the individual, the list of sources for that individual’s facts, and the list of immediate family members.
For the ancestor [mentioned] above, there were four separate marriage “facts.” All of the documentation of the marriage date came from other members’ trees. Two of these trees had the information entered in exactly the same format, so they were both linked to the same fact. The other three trees each had the information entered slightly differently from any of the other trees. In order to consolidate down to just one “fact” with multiple “sources,” I did the following:
- Chose which “fact” I wanted to keep (in this case, it was the one with the most detailed information about the event). I’ll call this the “Master Fact.” My “Master Fact” was showing one source. The “duplicate facts” were showing 2, 1, and 1 source respectively.
- Clicked on the first “duplicate fact.” This drew a connector line to the associated “sources.”
- Allowed my mouse to hover over the associated source, and clicked on the EDIT button that appears. At the top of the resulting screen, it listed the “facts” that this particular source is currently associated with. Below, it listed all the other “facts” for the individual.
- In the lower list, I clicked the plus sign next to the Master Fact that I wanted to keep. This associated the current “source” with the Master Fact.
- Next, in the upper section, I checked the “X” next to the “duplicate fact” that I intended to delete. This unlinked the current “source” from that “fact.”
- I repeated these steps for all the “sources” associated with the “duplicate facts.”
- Lastly, I went back to the Facts tab for this particular ancestor. My “Master Fact” was now showing 5 associated sources, and each of the “duplicate facts” showed no associated sources. I was able to click on each “duplicate fact,” select “Delete” from the “Edit” menu associated with that “fact,” and wind up with just the “Master Fact” for my ancestor’s marriage. Doing this really cleaned up the LifeStory view without having to “hide” a bunch of entries.”
Thank you, Nora! I appreciate hearing from you about the “gems” you’re finding in the new Ancestry site experience–and especially thanks for those instructions on associating several sources with the same life event.
The free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 180 has tips for backing up your Ancestry data (not just your tree, but sources and DNA), as does this blog post. Make sure you’re always backed up, whether your data lives online or on your home computer. I rely on Backblaze as the official Genealogy Gems backup data provider. Click here to learn why
by Lisa Cooke | Mar 6, 2014 | 01 What's New, Census, History, Kids
Remember the board game LIFE? Archives.com has put its own spin on this family favorite that experienced a revival in the 1960s.
(Quick Quiz: 1. What year was the game of LIFE created?
Bonus: 2. What was the original name?)
We recently discovered this cool, interactive webpage for learning more about U.S. history through census facts. It’s called The American Family Through Time and you can “play” it here free at Archives.com.
This clever page uses census data to show how American life has changed over the course of 220 years (and 23 censuses). You can click on decade-by-decade summaries on the “gameboard.” In addition to the census questions, you’ll find some fun now-and-then comparisons for housing, education and occupations. Great for kids of all ages!
Quick Quiz Answers:
2. The Checkered Game of Life