How can the census help in locating my ancestor's marriage record?

After 1850 certain marriage-specific questions were asked in the U.S. Federal Census that can help you learn more about your ancestor's marriage and when that marriage might have taken place. Of course, the best method is to follow your ancestor through all census years during his or her lifetime, beginning with the last census before death to the first census after birth to compare the changes from one census year to the next, and to evaluate the ages of children.

Following are the marriage-specific questions asked in the census, along with the years that question was asked. From this you can determine what marriage questions were asked during your ancestor's lifetime. Some questions were unique to a single census year' others were asked across several censuses. And while this information does not give you precise dates, it certainly does allow you to narrow the field in your search for records.

It is important to be note that, depending on the year, not all questions were asked of all people: race did play an issue. Information presented here applies to questionnaires given to the general population during a particular census year.

  • Was the person married within the last year? (1850, 1860, 1870)

    Keep in mind, this does not refer to the calendar year, but in the 12 months preceding the official enumeration date for that year, which for the years listed it was June 1st.

  • If married within the past year, which month? (1870)

    The 1870 census was the first and only year to ask this question. So if you ancestor was married in the time period between 1 June 1869 and 31 May 1870, this census year allows you to pinpoint the month of marriage.

  • Is the person single, married, widowed or divorced? (1880-1940)

    This standard question on marital status may be the most familiar, asked every year since 1880. In 1910 and 1920, as part of the marital status question, respondents were asked to identify their present marriage by number, indicating a subsequent marriage.

  • How many years has the person been married? (1900, 1910, 1920)

    This question refers to the number of years married to the present spouse, allowing you to count back the number of years given to estimate the marriage year.

  • Age at first marriage (1930 and for a [[[[|sample group]] only in 1940)

    This question is important, allowing you to look back and determine where your ancestor may have been living at the time of first marriage. In 1940, certain questions were asked of a sample group only, but it is possible that your ancestor was among that sample group.

Overall, these marriage-specific questions in the census, taken together over time can help you create a timeline of your ancestor's married life, and in turn provide important clues in your search for records.

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