Records of Intentions to Marry

Marriage Banns — Banns, sometimes spelled bans, were public notice of an intended marriage between two specified persons on a particular date.

Banns began as a church custom, later proscribed by English common law, that required the parties to give advance public notice of their intention to marry over three consecutive Sundays, either in church or a public place. The purpose was to give anyone who might have an objection to the marriage, to state why the marriage should not take place. Usually this was because one or both of the parties was too young or already married, or because they were more closely related than allowed by law.

Marriage Bond — a monetary pledge or guarantee given to the court by the intended groom and a bondsman to affirm that there was no moral or legal reason why the couple could not be married, and also that the groom would not change his mind.

If either party declined to go through with the union, or of one of the parties was found to be ineligible—for example, already married, too closely related to the other party, or underage without parental approval—the bond money was generally forfeit. The bondsman, or surety, was often a brother or uncle to the bride, although he could also be a relative of the groom, or even a neighbor of friend of either of the two parties.

The use of marriage bonds was especially common in the southern and mid-Atlantic states through the first half of the nineteenth century.

In colonial Texas, where Spanish law required colonists to be Catholic, a marriage bond was used in a slightly different fashion—as a pledge to local authorities in situations where there was no Roman Catholic priest available that the couple .

Marriage License — Perhaps the most commonly found record of a marriage is the marriage license. The purpose of a marriage license was to ensure that the marriage conformed to all legal requirements, such as both parties being of lawful age and not too closely related to one another. After confirming there were no impediments to the marriage, a license form was issued by a local public official (usually the county clerk) to the couple intending to marry, and granted permission to anyone authorized to solemnize marriages (minister, Justice of the Peace, etc.) to perform the ceremony. The marriage was usually—but not always—performed within a few days after the granting of the license. In many localities both the marriage license and the marriage return (see below) are found recorded together.

Marriage Application — In some jurisdictions and time periods, law required that a marriage application to be filled out before a marriage license could be issued. In such situations, the application often required more information than was recorded on the marriage license, making it especially useful for family history research. Marriage applications may be recorded in separate books, or might be found with the marriage licenses. 

Consent Affidavit — In most jurisdictions, individuals under the “lawful age” could still be married with the consent of a parent or guardian as long as they were still above a minimum age. The age at which an individual required consent varied by locality and time period, as well as whether they were male or female. Commonly, this might be anyone under the age of twenty-one; in some jurisdictions lawful age was sixteen or eighteen, or even as young as thirteen or fourteen for females. Most jurisdictions also had a minimum age, not allowing children under the age of twelve or fourteen to marry, even with parental consent.

In some cases, this consent may have taken the form of a written affidavit, signed by the parent (usually the father) or legal guardian. Alternatively, the consent may have been given verbally to the county clerk in front of one or more witnesses, and then noted along with the marriage record. Affidavits were also sometimes recorded to affirm that both individuals were of “legal age.”

Marriage Contract or Settlement —While much less common than the other marriage record types discussed here, marriage contracts have been recorded since colonial times. Similar to what we would now call a prenuptial agreement, marriage contracts or settlements were agreements made prior to marriage, most commonly when the woman owned property in her own name or wished to ensure that property left by a former husband would go to his children and not the new spouse. Marriage contracts might be found filed among the marriage records, or recorded in the or .

In areas governed by civil law, however, marriage contracts were much more common, used as a means for both parties to protect their property, regardless of their economic or social status. 


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