Unofficial Marriage Records, Gretna Green, and Complications

There are several kinds of official records of marriages (see this earlier post), but many unofficial sources can also be useful to family historians trying to learn the name of an ancestor’s spouse or the date of a marriage. Whether or not an unofficial source’s information about a marriage is precise or complete, it can provide useful clues.

Some of these unofficial records may provide information which is not recorded in official sources. For example, a 1960 Idaho State Journal article about my aunt’s wedding reports that her sister – my mother – came from Salt Lake City, Utah, for the wedding. The article also describes the bride’s wedding dress, which may be of little genealogical consequence, but nonetheless interests some of her offspring more than half a century later.

Anniversary notice in newspapers

Anniversary notice in newspapers

Here are some sources to consider:

  • Personal records of officiators or other participants or family members
  • Family Bibles
  • Newspaper announcements of engagements, weddings, and anniversaries
  • Children’s birth records or announcements
  • Census records
  • Tax records (at least as to marital status)
  • Occupational records (marital status and spouse name)
  • Death records
  • Obituaries
  • Military records
  • Pension records
  • Living relatives, within the limits of memory
  • Old wedding announcements kept in that box in the attic.

Don’t neglect the World Wide Web; some of this information is now searchable online, and more recent marriages may be noted in online newsletters or web sites of towns and churches.

Gretna Greens, Anvil Priests, and More

In many places and times, it has been common for weddings to take place in the bride’s hometown – either her birthplace or the town to which she moved as a child, and where she was raised.

Likewise, it has often been common for both the bride and the groom to marry and raise their families in or near the places where they were born. While this is not always true, their birthplaces are a sensible starting point for your search.

The birthdate of the oldest child can suggest a temporal starting point for a marriage record search. Bear in mind, however, that fertility does not require a marriage certificate. Not only is it possible for a bride to be secretly pregnant on her wedding day; it some places and times it has been common for the marriage to occur in the last few weeks of the pregnancy.

Gretna Green Blacksmith's shop

Gretna Green Blacksmith's shop

Then there’s Gretna Green. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you may recall Lydia Bennet leaving a note to the effect that she was eloping to Gretna Green with George Wickham (though they actually went to London). If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you may have noticed that Lady Sybil Crawley and the family chauffeur, Tom Branson, were on their way to Gretna Green, when one of Lady Sybil’s sisters caught them.

Gretna Green is a village just inside the southern border of Scotland, which is famous as a site for runaway weddings. Historically, the strict marriage laws in England and Wales did not apply to Scotland. Not only was it legal to marry at a younger age; the age of consent was 14 for boys and 12 for girls, as opposed to 21 in England. Moreover, Scottish law permitted “irregular marriages,” which did not require a church or public official to officiate. Almost anyone could officiate, as long as the couple made their declarations before two witnesses. Gretna Green blacksmiths became known as “anvil priests.” The most famous of these, Richard Rennison, performed over 5000 wedding ceremonies.

More generically, a Gretna Green is any place to which people resort to marry with fewer restrictions. They may be seeking to escape age requirements, waiting periods, parental consent requirements, blood tests, or the payment of a marriage bond. They may wish to marry a closer relative than their local jurisdictions allow. Or they may simply wish to marry in secret, to escape the family politics and other burdens associated with traditional weddings, or to marry in a particularly romantic place.

The obvious implication is this: If you cannot find a marriage record near where the bride, groom, or married couple lived, consider the possibility that they might have eloped to the next county, but also check for nearby Gretna Greens, located just over state or national borders. To get you started, here are FamilySearch’s list of Gretna Greens in the United States and a list at Arlene Eakle’s Genealogy Blog. (At the latter, be sure to peruse the comments, not just the post itself.)


Many of the complications one may encounter in searching for a marriage record are beyond the scope of this article. Common-law marriages may have no records at all, and even the term’s definition varies among cultures and jurisdictions. The only record naming the father of a child born out of wedlock might be a birth certificate, and even that is hit-and-miss. Polygamous marriages, legal and otherwise, pose their own complications.

Native American tribes and other formally or informally separate communities may have their own rules and practices, and separate sets of records.

Even such ordinary situations as divorce and remarriage pose some challenges, especially when some relevant records are missing, or when a child conceived during a marriage is born after the divorce, or even after the mother’s subsequent remarriage. Marriage and divorce records can help to determine which of a man’s children belongs to which wife, but, as usual, there is too much humanity mixed into this picture for it to be reliably simple.

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4 Responses to “Unofficial Marriage Records, Gretna Green, and Complications”

  1. Anne Baldwin says:

    thank you . Very interesting article on Gretna Greens. I never heard of such a think.

  2. i would like to know if there is any information of a marriage to margaret benson and norman howison

  3. Judith Peterson says:

    Thank you kindly for this wonderful and insightful research information. I am aware of many couples running to Salisbury, Maryland to be married outside of their church restrictions.

  4. David Rodeback says:

    Thanks for the additional insight!

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