Sunday, December 2, 2012

Using Documents to Understand the Time Period

If you've gotten to a point with your research where finding new records is few and far between and you're looking to get more out of the records you already have, sometimes you can get an understanding of the time period just by carefully examining a document and browsing other records in the same collection. I will use the 1855 marriage license of my third great grandparents, William Henry Mills and Emma Elizabeth Sherwood, to illustrate.

Wyandot County, Ohio Marriage Applications and Licenses 1845 - 1858, vol 1, page 196

What is interesting about this is that it attests to the fact that William is "over twenty-one years of age". This suggests that in 1855 Ohio, a man had to be 21 or older to be married. Meanwhile, it confirms that Emma is over eighteen, which means women only had to be at least 18 to be married, but notice how there is a big gap in the document after that statement? That gap is to allow a hand written addendum, probably something along the lines of explaining that the bride is not 18 but her parents/guardians give approval to marry.

If this is true then I should be able to find an example of it on another record in the same collection - the Ohio County Marriages, 1789 - 1994 on And indeed, it only took a few moments to find one of the many examples confirming this. In fact, you can see here that the bride is as young as 15 but that's okay because her father consents to it:

Wyandot County, Ohio Marriage Applications and Licenses 1845 - 1858, vol 1, Page 186

In my browsing, I didn't find a bride under fifteen so probably, that was the minimum age for a girl to marry with parental consent. But what about the men? You might think 21 seems rather high for a minimum age requirement of marriage, especially in history when we tend to assume that people married younger; but remember that men were expected to financially support their whole future family so they were encouraged to wait longer before marrying, until they had sufficient income. However, apparently exceptions could be made for men too. In the below example, the groom was only twenty but his legal guardian gives consent (though the guardian has the same surname, it does not specify it's the groom's father so it could have been a brother or uncle):

Wyandot County, Ohio Marriage Applications and Licenses 1845 - 1858, vol 1, page 192

I don't know why there is no gap in the document to allow for amendments regarding the groom's age as well. As you can see, it had to be squeezed in between lines. I suppose that means there weren't very many men marrying under the age of 21.

You'll notice how the default legal guardian is the father and only if the father is dead is someone else listed. If the father is deceased, typically the guardianship goes to the mother, as seen below in yet another example where the mother is described as the only surviving parent:

Wyandot County, Ohio Marriage Applications and Licenses 1845 - 1858, vol 1, page 191

What is the point of all this? Well, it tells me a lot about marriage laws, guardianship, and customs in Ohio in the mid 19th century without necessarily having to read a book on it. I now know that the minimum age for a bride was 18 but it was 21 for a groom, unless they had consent of a guardian to marry younger. I would have to look at more records to confirm 15 and 20 as the minimum ages with the consent of a guardian but this gives me an approximate idea for now. It also tells me that, not surprisingly, girls were more likely to marry under the age of 18 than boys were to marry under 21 (that is not to say girls were more likely to marry under 18 altogether though - in the majority of records, they were over 18). It also reminds me that the father was the only legal guardian who needed to give consent if the bride or groom was underage, which means the mother legally had no say. Only in the case of a deceased father did the mother become the legal guardian (though this may have changed if she remarried). And probably, if both parents were deceased, the legal guardian was a godparent. A little bit of browsing has given me a lot of information about this time period and location which I can add to my written family histories.

Going back to my ancestor's record, what is most interesting is that it says Emma is over 18 but according to my records, she was only 17 at the time! This could lend itself to speculation that perhaps she married without the approval of her parents and lied about her age. I am not going to make assumptions but it's something to keep in mind and make note of it. So definitely give your records a good analysis and do a bit of browsing in the collection - you never know what you might find!


  1. You have done an amazing job of digging below the surface to learn about the social history of the time and place. That is one of my favorite things too. All of my ancestors were German and lived out their lives in small villages until coming to America, mostly Wisconsin. Finding information on life in Germany is much like you describe; find documents, draw conclusions. Perhaps our real calling was crime detection?

    1. Thanks Kathy, genealogy definitely involves good detective work!