November 12th, 2011

Estimating Your Ancestor’s Marriage Date

Hopefully my previous two blogs were helpful in assisting you to get a handle on estimating birth and death dates. If not, I apologize and I officially owe you a beer or glass of wine, or if you prefer a cup of tea or coffee! Hmm…I better do some shopping! Nevertheless, in this blog I’ll talk about marriage dates and clues that can be used to determine the occurrence of holy matrimony. There are many methods that professional researchers use, and they have been proven effective in a number of various circumstances. As with the estimation of birth dates, Probate records are generally the first point of investigation for many of the pros. Let’s take a look at them and some other indicators that will first confirm that a marriage even existed.

Probate Records and Marriage

Probate records, as you may have noticed by now, are an exceptionally bountiful resource for genealogical data. In the case of detecting whether and when a marriage took place, a close inspection of these genealogical gems can be quite revealing. Examine probate records carefully and take special note of any wills that name the husband or anyone with his surname as a “legatee”. Subsequently follow up and check for probates administered in the region of the husband’s or wife’s residence at the time you think the marriage may have taken place. The reason for this is rather simple, and can help you to plow through those potential genealogical roadblocks that we all inevitably encounter.

You see, it was common during 1700’s for the witnesses for a will to be selected from both the husband’s side of the family and the wife’s side to ensure the will would be administered fairly. It is by no means a hard and fast rule, but it happened regularly enough to warrant consideration. Thus finding one person’s will could easily lead you to their spouse, and other potential ancestors. Guardians appointed for children were very often family members, again from both sides of the family, and as such can lead you further along in your ancestor hunt.

The Value of Deeds

Land deeds in which a male was the grantee of a plot of land of unknown origin can reveal marital ties. This could indicate that his wife brought the land to their marriage, but again don’t assume this right off the bat. First investigate other potential sources for the acquisition of land such as; entitlement, land won in civil suits, land acquired through military bounty, federal land allotments, or any other means of acquiring land beyond inheritance. If none of these other records can be found, it is a good indication of the existence of a spouse. If you notice that a man held land in conjunction with others who were not his siblings or spouse, it could indicate that those others were his wife’s family members. Oh, and the sudden prosperity of a male that can’t be accounted for – could mean the inheritance from his wife’s side of the family. Isn’t genealogy fun!

Any deed that you find in a woman’s name could likewise indicate the one time presence of a husband. This would indicate that she was selling property inherited from her husband (or father), selling property with a brother or son, or even selling lands to one of her children.


Cemeteries can reveal marriages through tombstone inscriptions, family groupings, and even the type of tombstone used. For instance, if you find the name of a man with a different surname than the other males in a family plot, this may indicate that he was the husband of one of the female members of the family, and consequently that marriage may be revealed upon examination of that cemetery or churches’ records. Likewise, the name of a young woman with a different surname than the other members may indicate a married daughter. Adjoining tombstones containing different names but having the same shape or style can indicate that they were purchased for a married couple.

Clues to the Date of a Marriage

Once a marriage has been confirmed, the most commonly used method to determine the date of a marriage is calculating backwards from the birth date of the first child. Most couples would have their first child within a year of getting married due to the lack of birth control, and consequently this is a fairly precise method of estimation. For instance, if a child was born on the 14th of April in 1852, there is a good chance that his parents were married somewhere between April and June of the previous year.

Other clues as to the date of a marriage are:

  • A deed showing the sale of a plot of land from a father to a son or another man (potential son-in-law) for a small amount of money.
  • The sudden acquisition of a piece of land by a young man. This would indicate that he has either just wed or was intending to at the time.

The lack of vital records for the era before Civil Registration does require much more work than the period after. One must study a multitude of records, and subsequently verify that data. But this is what makes genealogy both challenging and rewarding. Knowing that you have made a logical and chronological study of such records and pieced together a part of your family history that no existing relative or other person was previously aware of, not only makes you an accomplished researcher, but a pretty determined and clever character as well!