Because a number of people have expressed confusion over search results for New York City marriages in the Ancestry.com database, “Birth, Marriage & Death,” I thought that topic would be worthy of an article. The confusion occurs when, depending on the year of the marriage, researchers might receive two results for the same couple, but with different certificate numbers and slightly different dates. The main questions I’ve been asked are the following: why is this happening, and which of the two records should I order a copy of? To answer the first question, I will delve into some of the historical background of New York City marriage records.
Figure 1: Example of a search using Birth, Marriage & Death Database in Ancestry.com for a 1925 New York City Marriage. For privacy reasons, I have blacked out the bride and groom’s names on all searches and certificates shown.
In 1853 New York City began recording marriages (as well as births) in register form, but in 1866, the Health Department of New York City began requiring a certificate for each marriage. The City of Brooklyn also began creating certificates in the same year of 1866. After the unification of the cities of New York and Brooklyn in 1898, and the simultaneous expansion of the city into the five boroughs of New York as we know them today, the city’s Health Department created and held on file marriage certificates for all the boroughs.
In 1908 New York State enacted a law that required brides and grooms to fill out an “Affidavit for License to Marry.” Produced along with that affidavit was an actual license, upon the back of which was a marriage certificate, to be filled out and returned by the person performing the marriage. In the borough of Manhattan, the New York City Clerk was responsible for these records. However, up until 1937 the New York City Department of Health continued requiring the creation of their own marriage certificates. Because of that situation, couples who were married in New York City between 1908 and 1937 should normally have two separate marriage certificates held by the city: one filed with the City Clerk and associated with the affidavit and license, the other filed with the New York City Health Department. This duplication can be helpful to genealogists, because there were two separate entities producing records, so there is a greater chance of finding a marriage record. Another helpful result of the 1908 law was that it required the couple to submit information in the affidavit and license to the city clerk before their marriage, while previously it was the responsibility of the person officiating at the wedding to collect and submit the information after the wedding. Unfortunately, too often this did not happen, so that frequently there may not be a civil marriage record for a pre-1908 New York City marriage. Years ago, the Italian Genealogy Group (http://italiangen.org/records-search) and the German Genealogy Group (http://germangenealogygroup.com) created an online index to the New York City Health Department marriage records. It is accessible on their websites, and on Ancestry.com (Index to New York City Marriages, 1866-1937) and Familysearch.org (https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/2143225).
The indexes to the New York City Clerk marriage records were only made available online fairly recently. Reclaim the Records, a non-profit organization, got the records released, and they made them available on https://archive.org/details/nycmarriageindex. Last May, Ancestry.com added them to their collection (New York City, Marriage Indexes, 1907-1995). Now indexes to both the New York City Health Department certificates (Index to New York City Marriages, 1866-1937) and the New York City Clerk marriage records (New York City, Marriage Indexes, 1907-1995) are contained and searchable in the Ancestry.com general “Birth, Marriage & Death” collection. The bottom line is that if you search for a marriage that occurred in Manhattan between 1908 and 1937 in it, you should get two results: one from the Department of Health records, and the other from the New York City Clerk. If you want to order one or both, be careful to include the correct information (certificate number and date) for each request. You will find order information and forms on the New York Municipal Archives website: http://www1.nyc.gov/site/records/historical-records/genealogy.page
There is also an index to New York City marriages that occurred between 1950 and 1995 at http://www.nycmarriageindex.com/. To order a marriage record for those years (there is a 50 year requirement), you need to contact the City Clerk.
The second question as to which record is better to order is a little more difficult to answer. It’s possible that the City Clerk Records could contain slightly more information or be slightly more accurate than the Health Department records, but not necessarily. If the cost doesn’t matter, you might want to consider getting both. Below is an example of Ancestry search results for one marriage and the documents themselves, obtained from the New York City Municipal Archives . The first record is the New York City Clerk record. It consists of three pages: affidavit, license, and certificate.
Figure 2: City Clerk’s record includes three pages: Affidavit for License to Marry, Marriage License, and Marriage Certificate.
Below is the New York City Health Department search result and certificate for the same marriage.
Figure 3New York City Department of Health Certificate and Record of Marriage consists of two pages
Hopefully this explanation gives you a better understanding of the complexities of New York City marriage records. Most importantly, if you are searching for a New York City marriage that occurred between 1908 and 1937, you should know that there are usually two records available, which will have different certificate numbers and possibly slightly different dates. If you have any genealogy questions, please feel free to email them to email@example.com.