If you look at record keeping by religious agencies, parishes, counties, and countries, you will find that marriage certificates and registrations are some of the oldest ones available to the genealogist. Depending on the country and the time period, you may want to check for marriage records in religious institutions or in governmental agencies.
In the United States, marriage certificates will often be found in courthouses. It will be beneficial to you to map out your ancestor's homes and travels. If you know, for instance, that your ancestor married on the way down from Virginia to Georgia, then you need to try to follow the most commonly traveled path to search for courthouse records. The same is true for your ancestors that headed out West. Many people traveled from Georgia to Texas after the Civil War. When the West was settled, there were several main wagon trails, and you may need to follow the trail to find your ancestor's marriage.
In the courthouses, the marriage licenses or certificates are usually in chronological order. Often they have been alphabetized by either or both the groom and the bride, so that will be a finding aid. The sequence of events that occurred would be for a certificate to be filled out by the clerk, judge or ordinary, and then taken to a preacher, judge or justice of the ceremony when the ceremony was performed. The certificate would be returned to the courthouse where it was transcribed in the marriage book listing the bride, groom, clergy, and date of the marriage. Some states call these marriage records while others call them marriage returns.
In some instances, the marriage certificates were not returned. That type of instance will provide an interesting puzzle for the genealogist. In my family, my great-great grandmother Nancy Hart was to marry William Henry Hutcheson in 1860. A marriage certificate is on file in the Marion County, Georgia, courthouse records, but it was never filled out. Then, in 1863, the two filed out another certificate and married. This license is recorded in the courthouse. It is a tantalizing riddle as to why two years passed, and then the two decided to marry.
It is important to remember that marriage laws change over time. At different points in times, the legal age for a man and woman to marry may have been different. This also holds true for different states. Exceptions to these ages could have been made by the consent of one or both parents. If exceptions were made, they would be noted on the marriage certificate or license.
Marriage licenses are found in all fifty states and in countries across the world. The biggest different in marriage licenses between places is the actual certificate itself – some were quite intricate and beautiful while others were plain and to the point. The other main difference is the information included on the license.
As a rule, a marriage certificate or license will have the name of the bride (maiden name or her married name if she were widowed) and the groom, the date and location of the marriage, the name of the official (clergy, civil servant, justice of the peace, judge) performing the ceremony and the names (often with signatures) of at least two witnesses. If you are lucky, the ages of the bride and groom may be included. Some licenses have the names of parents; the date and location of the original filing (which may be invaluable in tracing your ancestor's path across the United States); and, quite often, the signature of the clerk, ordinary or probate judge is included.
Often the names of the two witnesses are what will lead you to another family or another generation. It is important to try to find who the people were who witnessed the marriage. These signatures provide an important clue into your ancestor's lives. Often they were relatives, but sometimes they were friends. Even friends can lead to another generation in that families and neighbors often traveled together.
Early marriage certificates and records were all handwritten. Some are quite beautiful with intricate artwork and seals. In more recent years, standardized forms have replaced the beautiful certificates of the past.