By Mary Penner, genealogist 09 May 2011
Even when all of the signs seem to indicate that a certain great-great-aunt was married, it can still be tough trying to determine when, where, with whom and how many times she tied the knot. It’s even tougher when marriage records are AWOL from a county courthouse or when you just don’t know where to look.
It turns out there are great sources at Ancestry.com that hold clues to past trips down the aisle. Here are five of my favorites:
1. Census records. Marital status hints first appeared in the 1850 census when residents were asked if they had married within the year. Census takers posed this same question in 1860, 1870 and 1880. It’s a handy detail to have. For example, in 1860 William and Adeline Knapp were newlyweds, but a nine-year-old boy with a different surname lived with them. Does that mean there was a previous marriage for Adeline? (Check the 1850 census for an Adeline using the same surname as the little boy to see if you’re onto something.) In 1900, census takers asked for the number of years married. In 1910 they clarified that question by asking for the number of years in the present marriage. In 1930 they inquired about your ancestors’ age at first marriage. A little math will help you determine if that was the same marriage as the one they’re in during 1930.
2. Draft records. The military wanted to know if potential soldiers were single or married. You may land upon a clue to a previous marriage when a draft registration from the Civil War or World War I lists a single man with dependent children.
3. City directories and gazetteers. These forerunners of phone books are dandy sources for spotting widows. That’s because they often noted which women were widows, and sometimes were kind enough to include the name of the deceased husband, too.
4. Death records. Most death certificates include the deceased’s marital status; some include the spouse’s name. Pay close attention to the informant’s name: it could be the spouse, since he or she was the one who often provided the death certificate details.
5. Newspapers. Historical newspapers frequently chronicled the vital events of our ancestors’ lives including engagement and marriage notices. Divorces often made the news, too. Review obituaries for your ancestor and other family members as well – you may learn maiden names or the name of a deceased spouse.