Gretna Green Wedding Destinations for New York
NYG&B summer interns Lauren Mondroski and Marine LeCanne contributed writing and research to this article.
Have you ever run into a brick wall while seeking a marriage record? If so, it's possible the couple married far away from home and the record was generated in a completely unexpected jurisdiction.
Some locations hold many marriage records of couples who traveled from elsewhere to get married - genealogists refer to these locations as "Gretna Greens."
Gretna Greens are found all over the world. There are Gretna Greens within New York State that attracted people from out of state, and Gretna Greens just outside the state that attracted many New York couples.
Couples would travel far to get married for a variety of reasons - read on to learn more about this important concept and how you might find a Gretna Green inside or just outside of New York State.
We're compiling a comprehensive list of Gretna Greens related to New York State - if you know of one, please let us know!
What is a Gretna Green?
“Gretna Greens” are well-known places where runaway couples can go to elope and marry, often due to marriage laws that are more relaxed than their home jurisdictions.
The origin of this phrase comes from the name of an unassuming Scottish village, Gretna Green. The town’s importance arose following the Marriage Act of 1753 in England.
Before this law, couples in England were required to have a declaration of their union recognized by the British government. The Church of England, however, required a lengthy process of public announcements that would allow the public to object and necessitated that each party acquired parental permission if under 21.
These requirements caused many people to pursue irregular marriages, which allowed them to forgo obstacles like paying fees and obtaining a parent’s blessing. When this was changed with the passage of the Marriage Act of 1753, couples looking for elopements looked to neighboring Scotland with its lenient laws governing marriage, specifically the first reachable village on Scottish soil, Gretna Green.
The village of Gretna Green became a haven for young star-crossed lovers to be married by practically anyone who would do the ceremony.
Since then, many other places have come to be referred to as “Gretna Greens” - the phrase is often used to refer to any jurisdiction that saw a higher-than-usual number couples travel there to be married.
Why would a couple want to get married far from home and seek out a Gretna Green? There are many reasons, but one common one was the existence of restrictive or undesirable marriage laws at home, including waiting periods, high fees for marriage licenses, or legal opportunities for members of the community to protest the marriage. Personal reasons could have certainly played a role as well - the thrill of eloping and the desire to avoid social or familial complications.
One exciting thing about uncovering a potential Gretna Green marriage is that you then get to hypothesize about the reason and fill out the rest of what is a story worth re-telling.
Gretna Greens and New York Genealogy
Gretna Green locations are especially useful for genealogical researchers because they provide another path for investigation when the search for an ancestor’s marriage records in their hometowns is not fruitful.
In general, Gretna Greens are often found near county, state, or even national borders. It all depends on time and place - the specific laws of the location the couple was coming from and traveling to are important, as are the laws at that time in history.
That makes this kind of research in New York State challenging: The Empire State borders Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Ontario, and Quebec - and Ohio and Michigan are not far away either. The same proximity to all of these states may also make towns in New York State possible Gretna Greens for other locations.
While Gretna Greens apply specifically to marriage, researchers should note that the idea of seeking out alternate jurisdictions for major events wasn't limited just to weddings.
For instance, New York State was notoriously difficult to obtain a divorce in for many years. For this reason, many New Yorkers pulled what we might call a "reverse Gretna Green" and traveled out of state to file for divorce. Read more about it in our article, New York Divorce Records for Genealogy Research.
We want to compile a list of possible Gretna Green locations for New York - can you help?
We have come across anecdotal evidence of a few New York State locations for Gretna Greens:
- Niagara Falls vicinity, on both the Ontario and New York State side
- Crown Point, NY
- Kings County, NY (Brooklyn)
It seems that an in-depth list of possible Gretna Green locations for New York State doesn't yet exist - so we want to create one!
Have you uncovered New Yorkers who seem to have gotten married at a Gretna Green in your research? Have you found a couple from outside of New York State that unexpectedly got married inside the state?
If so, fill out the form below and let us know the details. We will use all info submitted for the beginning of a New York Gretna Greens project that will exist to help other researchers struggling to find marriage records.