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The wedding date minefield

Last month, we looked at the peculiar problems of finding the marriage dates and marriage records of our Italian relatives. Since we keep better track of birthdays than anniversaries, we don’t always have the paper trail among our own records and photos to find the wedding dates of our grandparents, aunts and uncles.

The Italian records are quite complete, and for the most part couples married in the town where the bride’s father lived, so even if that wasn’t the birthplace, it wasn’t far away.

But when you’re looking for the marriage of a couple in America, it’s not nearly as easy.

Catholic parish records are microfilmed only as late as 1915. So if you know what church they went to, you can find a pre-1915 Chicago marriage in the church records. However, the tricky part is that people sometimes got married in a civil ceremony (by a judge) on a different date prior to the church wedding.

Please keep in mind that the Cook County civil marriage licenses have changed little since the Great Fire. They show the names of the groom and bride, and their ages (not always accurate!) and the bottom half of the form shows when and where the marriage ceremony was performed.

What about after 1915? There are some Chicago and Cook County marriage licenses on-line for free, and some that you have to pay $15 for a copy. You can find marriage licenses that have been microfilmed and digitized at www.familysearch.org. These cover from the late 1870s through the early 1920s. I can speak from experience, though, that these records contain a lot of misspelled names. If your Italian-born relatives went to City Hall to get a license, they probably were not talking to an Italian clerk, so the name got misspelled much too frequently. But you can look at the images and print and save them for absolutely free!

The other web site is www.cookcountygenealogy.org, which is the official web site of the county clerk. If you find the marriage in the on-line index, you can click a link to purchase a copy of the record for $15 each plus fees. The date you will see on the index is the date they applied for the license, not the date of the actual marriage. In some cases, they received a marriage license but never went through with the actual wedding. (Usually, daddy was not happy with his little girl’s choice of a husband!) Another problem is that the 1920s do not seem to be in the index at all, so a lot of records are missing. But the index covers from the 1870s up to 50 years ago. So you can find marriages (and possibly maiden names) for people who married as late as 1962 as of this writing.

But there is no guarantee that people married in Chicago just because they lived here. They might have married in a suburban parish. They might have married in New Jersey where the wife’s family lived. Sometimes, they married in Crown Point, Indiana, where the county law did not require a blood test. Sometimes, they eloped completely out of state, or married on a military base where he was stationed at the time. You can try to find marriages at www.familysearch.org and search nationwide, even though not every state or every year is covered.

I highly recommend you use the on-line tools to find as many marriage dates as you need. When you ask living relatives about marriage dates, be prepared for problems. Helpful people can turn on you. People get red-faced angry because you brought up that bleep-bleep ex-husband. They can get angry because you might be asking them to tell you a big family secret: that their mom and dad got married only four months before the birth of their first child. This is the point when some people believe that your genealogy project was created solely for the purpose of writing a Kitty Kelley book about the family skeletons!

These days, the stigma of having children out of wedlock is certainly less than it was when our ancestors or aunts and uncles were young. Frequently the children want to guard their parents’ legacy and don’t want you to publish the marriage date if it doesn’t fit the birth date of their first child. Even if you find the marriage on-line and the first child was born 3 months later, it is sometimes prudent to NOT publish that date on any charts you send around the family.

If somebody gets bent out of shape by the revelation of this fact, the best you can do is to acknowledge that you made a typo. “Oh mercy me! Butterfingers! I meant 1945, not 1946!” Fix the chart you have with you. It is better to quickly repair the relationship. You know for certain that dad was still in Europe in 1945 in the war and couldn’t have married mom until 1946, but this is not the time to take on these cousins in a battle over the unpleasant truth. You may win the battle, by producing a copy of the marriage license. But you could lose the war if they decide to no longer help you with information and photos you need. If they gladly tell you about it, or joke about the fact that their eldest brother was a “preemie” then it’s less likely you’ll upset somebody.

The most unpleasant subject to bring up when asking for information is the dreaded ex-spouse! I have seen cousins turn bright red, both eyes morphed into a single giant eyeball in the middle of their forehead, and horns come bursting out of the back of their skulls right in front of me, for nothing more than the unpardonable sin of mentioning the ex-spouse’s name! Most often, these are marriages that happened within the past 50 years so they are not on-line. So the only way to get a marriage date (or anything else about you-know-who) is to ask the cousin who made the mistake of marrying the jerk!

When you bring up the unpleasant subject of the ex-spouse, the person you are talking to gets reminded that they made a major life mistake by marrying this person. We’re not talking about losing your keys or forgetting to pick up your daughter from ballet class. It gets worse if the breakup was acrimonious and the subsequent child support and custody issues make the hatred worse. So now you walk into their home, have a cup of coffee, and then start asking for information about the person they hate more than anyone else on earth.

Not every relationship ends this way, but you should be cautious when bringing up the subject. Start with a question like “Can we talk about you-know-who? It’s up to you!” If the flames start shooting out of their nostrils, say “No problem. I understand. Let’s make sure your kids have the right birthdays.” Don’t push. Don’t press. You don’t want to do anything to ruin the relationship with this cousin, who evidently has other information you need.

If you can’t get the marriage date from the ex, you might try finding another sibling or cousin who might have wedding pictures in their collection. If they have a date on them, maybe they can help. The sister might hate her ex-brother-in-law, but not nearly to the degree as her sister.

Summing up, please be cautious when discussing marriage dates with your living relatives. Look at the big picture. You don’t want to burn a bridge (and I have) between yourself and the photos and information you need. Just be delicate when bringing up the subject.

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.