Someone contacted me recently asking for advice on a genealogy research problem she has. The problem is a fairly common one for New York City family researchers, so much so that I thought it might be helpful to share my advice to her with others. Here was her question: “Using the on-line indexes on Italiangen.org, I found a citation that I was sure was the correct one for my great-grandparent’s marriage certificate. However, when I received the certificate from the New York City Municipal Archives, I realized that, although the bride’s name matched, none of the other information did, including the groom’s name. Unfortunately, this particular index entry didn’t include the groom’s name, so I didn’t know before obtaining the certificate what the name was. I find no other entries in the online indexes that look right. How can I get the correct certificate? “
Here is my response. There are several possible reasons why you are not finding the correct civil marriage certificate. The first could be that the record was incorrectly indexed. There are several potential reasons for that happening, the details of which I won’t bother discussing for fear of getting too far off track. What you need to do is work with the wild-card and sounds-like search options that are available on the Italiangen.org/germangenealogygroup.com marriage indexes. Be very creative when you try to think of how a name could have been misinterpreted by an indexer or even the minister or official filling out the record. Since you know the groom’s name, try searching for him and checking the bride cross-references. You might be more successful using his name.
A second possibility for why you still are not finding the marriage of interest is that the marriage did not actually take place in New York City. Try to see where the bride’s family was living around the time of the marriage. Some suggestions for tracking down a family are to look for them in census records, city directories, or newspapers. If for example they are listed in census records as living in New York City (i.e. Manhattan) or Brooklyn close to the time period you think the marriage occurred, check the appropriate city directories for the bride’s father to find out the family’s address. Or you might want to first try looking for a marriage announcement in a newspaper. If your great-grandparents marriage took place between 1835 and 1877, try looking in the Index to Marriages and Deaths in the New York Herald. You could also search on-line newspaper websites such as the Library of Congress Chronicling America website at http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov or Old Fulton NY Post Cards http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html. A newspaper marriage announcement often states specifically where the marriage took place.
A third possible reason why you are not finding a civil marriage record is simply that one might not exist. Many 19th century New York City marriages, and even some later ones, particularly those performed in Catholic churches, are not included in the county clerk’s office registries. Whether intentional or not, more often than many researchers assume the minister who married the couple simply did not file a marriage certificate (“Return of a Marriage,” not a license) with the municipal authorities, even though they were required to by law, and a couple was not required to obtain an actual license to get married before 1908. By the way, these licenses, which are available at the municipal archives, but are not included in the usual on-line indexes, are another resource in themselves, if you are searching 1908 or later.
If you have searched diligently and creatively without success, and believe the marriage you are looking for may not have been filed with the city, you should consider looking for the religious record of your ancestor’s marriage, because it might be the only record that exists. Use an address provided by a census record or city directory to figure out possible churches the family might have attended. Churches and their addresses were often included in city directories, which will help you, figure out which ones existed and where exactly they were located during the time period you are interested in. If the church still exists, even if it has moved, contact them to see if they have a record of the marriage in their registry. If so, always remember to ask for all the information contained in the original church book entry.