Essential Steps to Find a New York State Marriage Record
Marriage records can be some of the most valuable documents that you uncover in researching your New York ancestors.
Marriage is often an important life event, and an official record of this act can be treasured in and of itself. Of course, the information contained in a marriage certificate or license is also incredibly valuable to the family history researcher - depending on the time and place of the marriage, you can find deep information on both spouses (including a specific foreign birthplace if one was an immigrant), as well as deep information on parents and witnesses.
Finding a marriage record can be a real breakthrough - it may help you solve a long-standing mystery, or open up further avenues of research to explore.
The problem with New York State marriage records
Civil marriage records can be challenging to locate in New York State. Marriage records created in New York City are kept separately from those created elsewhere in New York State, and record keeping for all vital records (civil birth, marriage, and death records) was very spotty until about 1914. There are also plenty of local exceptions and idiosyncrasies that affect the research process.
That's why we're here to help! This article will provide an overview of the things you can do to find a marriage record for any ancestor outside of New York City. If you're seeking a New York City marriage record, our online guide to Finding New York Birth, Marriage, and Death Records has a section devoted to New York City vital records.
For those searching outside of New York City, there are a couple of steps everyone must take, and then a few different options available depending on the time and place of the marriage you're investigating.
Essential Step: Estimate the time and place
Estimating dates of birth or death can be somewhat straightforward, but estimating the date of a marriage can be a little trickier. There is no single way to do this - you may need to make some well-informed guesses based on available information. While some records will explicitly contain information about the date of a marriage, you may not have one that does.
If the marriage occurred relatively recently and you have access to someone in your family who knew or knew of the married couple, you may be able to get a general year of marriage from a genealogy interview (among many other great stories and pieces of information).
You may otherwise be able to use census records to form a hypothesis - if you can track the individuals backward from census to census (make sure you're not overlooking New York State census records), you may find the couple in the same household in one census, but separate households in prior years. The birth of a child may also be a good indicator.
You don't need to find the exact date of marriage, but a well-informed time window will help ensure you find the right marriage record.
Essential Step: Determine if the record is likely to exist
The unfortunate reality is that for many of our ancestors, there is no official marriage record produced by a civil government. For a variety of reasons, many towns and cities in New York State did not begin reliably issuing marriage certificates until the late 1800s and even early 1900s in some areas.
While this is the general rule of thumb, the important thing to remember is that marriage record-keeping practices vary greatly by location. Some towns and cities began tracking vital records earlier than others - especially in major cities like Albany, Buffalo, Yonkers, and others.
How do you make this determination? A good place to start is our article that details the general timeline of New York vital records - this will give you the overview that you need. Once you have an idea of the general landscape, you'll have a solid idea of how to approach the next steps.
Researchers who own a copy of the New York Family History Guide and Gazetteer should also thoroughly read the chapter on New York State Vital Records, which has several useful charts that go into detail about specific municipalities in New York State and when each began keeping vital records consistently.
Option 1: Online Records
The majority of New York State vital record certificates (including marriage certificates) have not been digitized. In many cases, researchers will need to contact a repository to order a copy.
However, there are a few large online databases of New York marriage certificates that do include original images of marriage certificates. Though they are not comprehensive, it's definitely worth investigating these online databases first.
Depending on the time and place of the marriage you're seeking, the following online collections may be of interest:
New York, County Marriages, 1847 - 1848, 1908 - 1936
This FamilySearch collection can be accessed for free on www.familysearch.org (researchers will need to register for a free account). It is a fully searchable collection that contains an index and images of civil county marriage records for 45 out of New York State's 62 counties. Researchers should note that indexing is currently in process, so not all images may be discoverable via search. All images can be browsed, and are organized by county and year range.
In New York State, many local governments kept copies of marriage certificates, even after they were required by law to send copies to the State Department of Health in Albany. The images in this collection are of these county copies.
Coverage does vary by county - researchers may want to consult this New York County Marriages Coverage Table on FamilySearch for specifics on their county of interest.
Similar collections on Findmypast
There are a few collections on Findmypast that are similar to FamilySearch's collection of county marriage records. These collections comprise of many of the same images, but researchers with a subscription to Findmypast may also want to search these collections:
- United States Marriages (a large collection that can be filtered for New York State only)
- New York Marriages (currently listed as being in beta testing; records may be accessible to non-subscribers)
As a reminder, all NYG&B members get free access to all North American records on Findmypast as a bonus membership benefit.
Option 2: Investigate at the State Department of Health
If you cannot locate an image of the marriage record you're seeking online, don't give up! You may be able to order a copy from the New York State Department of Health in Albany for a small fee.
Their collection begins with the year 1880 and generally becomes more reliable as time goes on - most consider their records to be reliably complete beginning in 1914. Researchers should note that the State Department of Health does not have vital records for Albany, Buffalo, and Yonkers before 1914 - for records before that time, you should investigate at the local level.
The best way to receive the exact marriage certificate you're looking for is to find the certificate number in an index - once you have the certificate number, you can easily order the certificate. If you can't find a certificate number, you can request an index search along with a copy of any certificates found, but it will result in a higher fee.
There are eleven repositories in New York State that have indexes to vital records kept with the New York State Department of Health. Researchers with a subscription to Ancestry.com can search the index online in the New York State, Marriage Index, 1881 - 1967.
Access to vital records is restricted by law. In general, marriage certificates are available for marriages that took place 50 or more years ago if both parties are deceased. Proof of death is often required for other New York State records as well, so this is one of the many reasons you should have your ancestor's New York death certificate.
See our online guide to Finding New York Birth, Marriage, and Death records for detailed information on ordering a vital certificate from the NYS Department of Health.
Option 3: Investigate at the local level
While the New York State Department of Health is the central repository for New York State vital records, it is not the only one.
Records of births, marriages, and deaths were usually filed with the local municipality where the events occurred, and many copies that were retained in county, town, or city facilities are still available.
As mentioned in our New York vital records timeline, towns and cities in New York State began sending copies of their vital records to Albany around 1880, but many kept their own before that and continued to keep duplicate copies even after Albany became the central repository.
Albany, Buffalo, and Yonkers kept separate vital records until 1914 - for marriage certificates before 1914, researchers will need to investigate in these cities. Our online guide to Finding Birth, Marriage, and Death Records in New York has a useful section on where to look for pre-1914 Albany, Buffalo, and Yonkers vital records.
The town or city clerk’s offices usually provide directions on obtaining vital records held at the local level, especially for cities. The vital records chapter of the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer has several charts detailing exactly when vital records of each type begin for cities in New York State.
Four counties in New York State (Chemung, Monroe, Onondaga, and Tompkins) are “consolidated districts” where vital records are kept at the county level. Many county and municipal websites have up-to-date information and special accommodations made for historians and genealogists.
Our County Guides for Genealogists and Family Historians detail all local repositories in every county and provide contact information for each.
Option 4: Marriage Certificate Substitutes
It's important not to get too focused on finding any one specific type of record - the ultimate goal is to find acceptable genealogical proof of an event and/or relationships. While a civil marriage certificate will certainly accomplish this, there are other records you can use to prove this event.
In New York State, one good way to substitute for a missing civil marriage certificate is to use religious records. Religious congregations in the Empire State usually captured baptisms, marriages, and burials with reliability, and these records often begin long before New York kept civil vital records.
Finding New York State religious records is another subject entirely, but one that is very worth pursuing. Our article on using religious records as vital record substitutes is a good starting place.
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