If you want to find the marriage records of your ancestors, you may need to look somewhere besides where they lived. This genealogy case study with professional genealogist J. Mark Lowe demonstrates how the concept of a Gretna Green can solve this marriage mystery.
This is part 2 of a 2 part series on marriage records. Watch part 1 Gretna Green and Marriage Records.
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My Guest: J. Mark Lowe. You can contact Mark through the Kentucky – Tennessee Research Associates
(This transcription was edited for clarity)
In our last video, J Mark Lowe was here and he explained that Gretna Green is a place in Scotland and it was a place well known for being very easy to get married, a lot fewer marriage restrictions than other locations. Well, that name has actually become synonymous with any place where it’s much easier to get married. And that means also here in the United States. So when you’re looking for a marriage record, and you’re not finding it, there’s a possibility that Gretna Green is playing a role. In this video, Mark Lowe is back and he is going to walk us through a case study that really illustrates the power of understanding Gretna Green, when you’re looking for marriage records.
(01:26) Mark: This case involves my grandparents, Papa Lowe and Mama Lowe. That’s what we call them. They were a very, very sweet couple. My dad knew a lot about his parents, and he was the oldest child. But do you know what he did not know? He thought they got married in Bowling Green where they lived. He just said they got married in Bowling Green. So, there I was with the county court clerk and there wasn’t a marriage for his parents!
I’ll have to tell you, my grandmother was, the term we use is a tea totaler. So that typically she was not an alcohol user. She was somewhat rigid and strict, in some ways. But I think I said to the clerk, “were my grandparents actually married?!” And he just burst out in big laughter. He knew them. So he just thought it was hilarious that a seven-year-old asked that. In the fact he said – he called my grandmother Miss Eunice – he just laughed, and he said, “No son, I’m sure that they went somewhere else to get married.” It was pretty popular at the time. He didn’t tell me where they were married, though.
I did know that from the 1920 census, that they were already married. So in my great grandparents’ household there is my grandfather Earnest and his wife, my grandmother Eunice, living with his parents and they are married. And I knew that that had to be close to that time period that they married because I knew it was after my grandfather was back from World War I. So, this helps establish that they’re at least somewhere close, and that they’re a married couple living with his parents.
So they didn’t go to California, for example, or Texas. They didn’t go too far to get married. If they did they are already back. It was kind of like doing what we normally do, which I think is, as a beginner, we’re taught to look start in the county where they’re living. And I found a map of South Central Kentucky from that time period, 1924. I found it on David Rumsey.
You can see the blue star is generally where they lived kind of in the northeast corner of Warren County, Kentucky. Bowling green is the county seat, and so I looked there. I learned as a young researcher that if the marriage can’t be found where they lived, you will look at the surrounding place. You look at every place that touches that area. Well, there are a lot of counties! Nearby is Warren county, and I checked there. I checked every one of those counties and it took me a while to do it! (I couldn’t do it when I was seven. I had to wait till I could drive!) So, it took several years for me to be able to write a few letters.
You also see along that where that blue star is that there’s a railroad. It’s not a driving road. So the other thing that I thought about is the railroad. So I also went to counties beyond the adjacent counties because of the railroad. I went all the way even up to Louisville, which is just north, probably about two hours by train. North of that I even checked those counties. I didn’t find them.
Had I looked at this map more carefully, and had what I know today about the Gretna greens, I would have at least looked at the differences between the laws. I showed you those differences between Kentucky law and Tennessee law in the last video. I probably would have also looked at the statistics for the counties along the Tennessee Kentucky border where there were more marriages. Had I done that, if I had followed my own advice, I would probably have seen it.
If you follow that railroad on the map, it kind of goes down and then it goes straight south. And there is Simpson County. And it goes down to Franklin. And then there is the triangular jog. That’s a little break in the line up between Kentucky and Tennessee. It’s a historical point. Well, just south of that is a little town called Mitchellville. It’s in Sumner County. It’s just over the state line. There’s a railroad stop there. Well, guess what? That’s where they got married!
They hopped on a train, went to Mitchellville got off the train, went to the JP (Justice of the Peace) and were able to do everything and then probably hopped on the train, next train going north, and went back home.
I do want to verify that. And yes, it’s there. There’s a marriage bond for them. They married, and what’s interesting here is we always look at the bondsman to help us to connect with other family and associates and people that they know. What’s interesting about their record is that the bondsman is F.M. Groves, that’s also the justice of the peace who married them. And at the top it says that F.M. Groves paid for the bond. Do you know what he was known as? The marrying squire because if you crossed over to Mitchellville he was the JP. He had an office near the train station. I guess that probably was almost his full time job. People would come there to get married. Everybody knew about it. They would come and get married, he would take care of the license, and they would go on their way, and then he would record it. He would take all of those marriages to the county court clerk’s office over in Gallaton in Sumner County, and record those. I never thought about looking there. They actually are in the marriage register. But that’s not where they were married, and it wasn’t done the day they were married, because he did everything in his office, and then he took all the stuff over.
In the indexes, they copied my grandmother’s name which was Eunice. And on his record, you can clearly see it says Eunice Martin in that bond. Well, it’s a little scratchy. But when it’s indexed on the other record, they missed the U and the indexed her as Enis. And so that’s the other thing in a Gretna Green, when you’re checking an index, if it was copied by a JP and then taken to the clerk, it’s very possible that there could be errors in the name transfer the copying. Or if the if the clerk was trying to read the JP’s handwriting and it was really bad, then the name could be totally obliterated in the register, which is usually what used to index the records. So that can also create a problem.
(10:10) So, they were married by this marrying squire. I found the article about him in the newspaper and he was involved with the railroad. So, he a smart man that realized that there were a lot of folks in the time period, post World War I, interested in getting married. He was in favor of that, and so that a lot of folks did it. And what’s interesting is that almost all of my grandfather’s siblings married all came to Mitchellville. They all came to the same place. And then all their cousins that married in that next decade from the 20s on, almost all of them did the same thing. They hopped the train and they came down to Sumner County, Mitchellville, and got married. It became almost like that was the heritage place and I wouldn’t have known that. But once I know it, then it’s like, I didn’t even have to go to Kentucky to look up any more records. They’re all right here in Sumner County.
So again, the Gretna Green creates a whole new situation of helping us. Once you begin to see it, you see the pattern.
One of the things that we have today that we didn’t have back when I was seven is we didn’t have access to the great records that have been indexed for us on FamilySearch, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and all these great resources. I could have looked for that marriage. But I might not have looked on Tennessee because I thought that they got married in Kentucky. So again, you do need to think about the possibility that they didn’t marry where they lived. Ask yourself, what are the places that people would typically go. If you can’t find them, clearly go back to that concept.
A lot of times our records are not where we think they will be. I was looking for one today. Pat Boone was a famous singer. All my life I’ve known that Pat Boone and his wife Shirley Foley, were a young couple that married in 1953. And I’ve always known that Pat Boone got married in this town in Springfield. It was kind of known as a Gretna Green because of the rural areas. People didn’t want to get married Nashville so they often came up here. I looked in the newspaper, and it actually said that Pat and Shirley, their newspaper accounts in Nashville, indicated that they had married in Springfield. It actually indicated the church that they were married in. It was in the study of a church right here. And it talked about who the witnesses were, because one of them was one of his college professors in Nashville. And so, I just wanted to find that record. I thought, well, since they married here, they also got their license here. But, again, that’s not the case. They actually got their marriage license in an adjacent County in Davidson County, and then they came up here and had it solemnized. So again, if I was looking for the record, even though they married here, (I looked for the record here), the record is in Nashville. And so sometimes, that’s not really the same thing as they went somewhere to get married in this case of Gretna Green, and the records are there, but again, you have to stop and think about what am I looking for? And what’s the truth of the situation? Listen to the story, and the story will help you find the details often.
(14:31) Lisa: That’s a great point. And I think you’re right, a lot of people assume that it always happens all in one place. but maybe not. And how amazing that the marrying squire performed 12,000 marriages. That’s a lot of people!
These strategies are so terrific because as you said even though we can search the index today, if it got transferred a couple of times there’s a chances of not finding it in the index because the name got kind of chopped up as it kept getting transcribed are good. You have to go back to these strategies.
(15:08) Mark: And also people had nicknames. You know me as Mark, but my first name is John. So if I actually was on the record as John Lowe, you might not have connected that with me. I know that’s often the case when I’ve been looking for brides, and I know them as Elizabeth, and I go look, and there’s not an Elizabeth in that marriage record. And I may have known she married somebody named William. So, I’m looking for an Elizabeth marrying a William. I know of a particular case where the young lady’s name was Caroline Elizabeth, and she went by Elizabeth, but her first name was Caroline, but she never used it. Guess what? She used it on her marriage record!
It could have been misheard. I know another person who went by Martha. Her name was not Martha. Her name was Mary Ann. She got a nickname of Martha, because she had an Aunt Martha. And so they called her Little Martha. It became a nickname. And so, she went by that. Her legal name was Mary Ann.
My grandfather ended up working for the railroad later. And I would say that when the railroad passes through an area, and I found this to be true in a lot of cases, with the transportation situation and a railroad often being an inexpensive way to travel, that often would have led to even more chances of the Gretna Green happening. I know of several couples along the railroad who decided to go somewhere else.
For example, to get out of Kentucky and go get married, they could hop on a train, and within about two hours, they could be up in Illinois in White County, Illinois. I know a couple in southern Kentucky who lived in different towns, they shared notes about how they were going to run off and get married and all this. But we don’t always have those notes afterwards, right? Grandma didn’t, grandma didn’t leave me all the personal things that she wrote to grandpa. In that case, this family ends up having these notes later, and they learned that the couple planned this whole thing. They hopped on the train and they met and had a bag and they went across the state line to White County, Illinois and got married. You would think, wow, I would never look that far away. All you’ve got to do is just follow that map of where the train goes.
Recently I talked to some folks in Eastern Kentucky and I helped some folks. In every case we used the railroad map and we were able to pinpoint the most logical place for them to go to get married. In almost in every case, they either went to Lexington or Louisville, because the big city had a JP. They might hear from the railroad guy who knew who to go see to get that done quickly. So they had a great experience. They were able to get back on the train and go back home and tell everybody, “Hey, we got married.”
So, one of the advantages of the Gretna Green is that the marriage can be quick, and you can get back home and announce it. I’m pretty sure that’s partly why my grandparents did what they did. They went and they came back and probably their friends knew and they probably had a reception or party either then or the next day.
Lisa: And it might be that people couldn’t necessarily afford a big wedding or it was just like a little getaway mini honeymoon or they had to get back to work on Monday. Who knows.
(19:40) Mark: Well, I think sometimes that’s the most logical reason. It’s probably very simple like that. There are some cases where we know that perhaps the father of the bride was not was not real thrilled about his potential son-in-law. He just didn’t think he was good enough for his daughter. And so he probably pushed back. I think that happened a lot.
I know in cases where they just didn’t want to wait. If all it took was crossing two county lines to get married they might just do that. I can hear saying, “Daddy will be okay with it once we’re married, it’ll end once we’re married. He’ll be okay, you’ll all be fine.” I think the justification of young minds often will lead us to make those decisions.
Lisa: That sounds like my grandmother. I’m sure Daddy wasn’t thrilled. It was funny because they lived in Northern California, but they went to Carson City, Nevada to get married. It was just this little tiny thing in the newspaper, nothing fancy. Her fiance, my grandfather, worked for the railroad. So it was super easy. They picked a convenient spot along the railroad line. I’m sure she felt like ‘well, we’ll come back and then we’ll ask forgiveness later.”
Use a Genealogy Research Plan
(21:21) Before I let you go, I really want to touch on one thing. I’ve been kind of trying to remind people lately about research plans. When it’s not a quick search, and what you’re looking for doesn’t just pop up on Ancestry or MyHeritage we’re going to have to dig a little bit and do this kind of background work.
As you were talking about getting the map out and then marking the spots I envision all those locations, go into that research plan. A plan helps you know where you’re going and how to approach it.
If you had to give a pitch on why it’s worth taking the time to take a deep breath and put a plan together, what would you say?
Mark: That’s easy because all of us have lost something important to us in our normal life. Now, as we get older, we lose a lot more. But when the research is important to you, a plan becomes essential. Not only does it help you think through it, and then you follow the steps as you as you see them developing.
It also helps you when you when you follow those steps and you don’t find the answer. A good plan helps you. It’s like a GPS that says “recalculating, recalculating!” If you have a written plan, if you’ve got a plan in place, when you get to that point it’s easy to just take a step back and look again. I call that my mull and ponder stage. I love to just sit and relax and rock and think through what’s my next option. A plan will help you decide what you’re going to do next.
In my years of experience, I’ll say, if it’s not there, then I’m going to look here, or I’m going to do this. I’m going to look for some alternates. That’s the real strength of a plan. I cannot imagine finding some of the great things that I’ve found without a plan. They don’t fall and hit you on the head.
You do not find new information by following the same old path. A plan helps you get to some new information.
Lisa: That’s a great point and a great note to end on. My friend, thank you so much for sharing your expertise.
About J. Mark Lowe
Contact professional genealogist J. Mark Lowe through the Kentucky – Tennessee Research Associates