The pen is mighty

fulton family crop1We’ve all been there: we’ve all looked for that one record that should exist – but does not. And why? Why did our ancestors do that to us? Why did they forget to file paperwork? or procrastinate when registering a deed? Why didn’t they know we would be searching for them years later?

I am often annoyed with my ancestors – they failed to write wills, file taxes, and baptize their children. This was before my brother Andrew got married (or maybe I should say, tried to get married) in Puerto Rico: now I have a slightly different view.

My brother and his fiancée, Coral, a woman from Dorado, Puerto Rico, decided to get married in the church where her mother was married. It was incredibly sweet, and my whole family was really excited to be a part of the coming together of two families. (There will be more blog posts to come on some interesting wedding traditions.) On the day of the wedding, we were first delayed because of torrential rain. Not a surprise, as we were in a tropical climate. Yet, once the rain stopped, we were postponed again because the minister needed an acid-free pen to complete the marriage record. I’m not kidding – we waited 45 minutes for the magical pen to arrive. And once the minister was armed with the correct writing instrument … we had a wedding. It was beautiful. Then we celebrated at a beautiful venue in Old San Juan.

Two days later, my (I thought) sister-in-law got a call from the minister – because my brother and his fiancé used their Maryland address as their place of residency, the marriage certificate was invalid. Apparently, the minister used a certificate for a Puerto Rican wedding, and my brother and his fiancé needed a “destination wedding” certificate. This was true – even though Coral was born and raised in the same community where she was married.

After some tears and various phone calls, we fixed the problem. The best man and the maid of honor were gathered together again, the proper paperwork was completed, and my brother was officially married. However, the inconvenience of the whole event got me thinking: no wonder some of my ancestors failed to file the proper paperwork.

In fact, my original suggestion was for Andrew and Coral to get married when they got back to Maryland – it would be easier. Plus, they were married in the eyes of God, in the church of Coral’s ancestors, so what would be the harm? Well … if they decided to take the easy route, a future genealogist would have a heck of a time explaining why their wedding photos were taken in a tropical climate and their marriage record indicated that they were married in Maryland. Or, what if they didn’t file at all? What if they decided that the church ceremony was enough? They would be just like those ancestors who failed to write wills, file taxes, and baptize their children.

It’s just another example demonstrating that our ancestors were human. They lived in the world, and dealt with deadlines and paperwork. They were procrastinators. They forgot to file paperwork. They made agreements in person and handed down heirlooms without a will. In short, they lived. We just have to find what they did write down to learn more about their lives – using the correct pen, of course.

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

17 thoughts on “The pen is mighty

  1. A good example of how we need to keep our minds open to myriad possibilities. But the one thought I had — In another time, I wonder if it would have made any difference that they weren’t officially married on their so-called wedding night?

  2. Another example of “you can’t make this stuff up!” Gotta love bureaucrats worldwide!! Now I won’t feel so frustrated about my inability to locate records.Thanks for an eye-opening piece!

  3. My parents were married in 1947 at my mother’s church by a visiting priest since the usual priest was out of town. The visiting priest left, assuming the regular priest would finish the paperwork. The rectory burned the following day and, you guessed it, the marriage return was never filed. My parents did not know this until 33 years later when my sister was applying for her marriage license and my mother requested a copy of theirs, which was stamped “incomplete”. Simple, the clerk said, just have the priest who married you file an amendment. You guessed it, that priest just died the week before. Fortunately they accepted the word of the current priest that they were married at the time and place stated. Imagine if my mother had not requested a copy of their license…

      1. Good post Nani…….and good lord fumetti, Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917!!

  4. Our oldest son got married. The bride had an Hawaiian dress on and had bride and groom leas mailed over here. When we sent digital photos to friends, one reply was why didn’t you tell us. Where in Hawaii was the wedding held? They were married on the shore of a lake in Madison, Wisconsin. Let our descendants find that one!

  5. I agree it’s frustrating when your ancestors or your parents don’t write things down. In my case my father neglected to tell us that we were descendants of the Puritans Of the Winthrop fleet. He never told us anything about our family history. I figured we came in the 1800s and landed Ellis Island I had no idea there was a book on the genealogy of my family. It’s been an amazing adventure it would’ve been so much easier if he ust told me about this My mother suddenly remembered that he and his sisters used to talk about the family history over dinner all the time. Not sure why they didn’t tell me or any of my cousins about this Happily my mother had an older brother who was determined to write down her family’s history. They came here in the 1600s with your early French explorers. Happily I’ve discovered tons and tons of documents of both families we were just never told any of this existed. Well it’s a great adventure. I am writing it all down.

  6. Sometimes it is the fault of the bureaucrats and lawmakers. In New York it was not the law to register marriages and births until quite late in the 19th century. However, Church certificates of marriage and christenings were acceptable substitutes well into the 1960’s. So, why go through the hassle of license and registration if the church paperwork is legal? At least that’s what I tell myself when frustrated by relatives around the state who apparently felt that way!

  7. Don’t forget that, in the past, transportation and travel were not easy issues. Returning the marriage license to the court clerk or filing that will, etc. across the river, on the other side of the county, through the snow (or whatever the situation) might not have been a priority for our ancestors if they were dealing with bad weather, illness, crops needing to be tended, children……..

  8. This post reminds me about my grandparents. My grandfather died when my mom was young, and my grandmother would never discuss their marriage. Finally, a few years before my grandmother died, she mentioned to my mom that they had married 3 times. The 1st time they eloped to NH, from MA, and were married by a judge. A few years later they were married by a J.P. in Boston, and shortly there after they married at a church in Boston. I have found the 2 Boston marriages, but the City of Boston only had the marriage by the J.P., so there seems to be a lack of some paperwork filed there (if I had not known to look for both, I may not have found both). My frustration is that I can’t find the 1st marriage in NH. It’s not in the state index, and I don’t know where in NH the marriage took place. My grandmother said they re-married because there was some question about the legitimacy of their 1st marriage, but gave no details. Why? Was the paperwork not filed correctly? I have a feeling I may never know.

      1. About 1937. The groom’s brother had married in Seabrook & the bride’s sister had married in Portsmouth (both in 1938, although by JPs, not judges), so those were my top 2 possibilities, but no luck finding anything so far.

    1. My great great grandmother & gg grandfather ran away to Scotland probably Gretna Green but no record has been found. Her mother made them get married in the Church of England so all the neighbors would KNOW for sure they were married,.

      1. When my mom was told her parents married for the a third time in the church, her reaction was that the groom’s mother made them get married there. Sure enough, when I got the record, his mother was one of the witnesses. I assume it would’ve been a not overly publicized affair though, as at the time my grandmother was a few weeks shy of giving birth to her 3rd child.

  9. My paternal aunt married during WWI and by telephone!!! I was very young &puzzled as to why anyone would want to get married and don’t remember the details, only being fascinated that it could be done The husband to be was due to be shipped overseas. This was in the days when using telephones involved a switchboard operator or “central”. This marriage ended in divorce fifteen or so years later and this aunt married again, more than several times and I don’t know the legalties of a divorce and a telephone marriage – maybe they phoned that in too – after all it was California.

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