Although a marriage certificate can be a useful document when tracing family history, there are times when it might reveal more questions than answers.
In this case, a researcher was in possession of a copy of a marriage certificate. A first glance, the document seemed like a normal wedding certificate, but she questioned its validity for several reasons: the source of the document was unknown — although the patron had had it for years, she did not recall where it came from
the document was a pre-printed form with the year designated as 19_. But this had been crossed out and “1896” written over the top
the predominate handwriting was messy and obviously done in a bit of a hurry — not something you would expect in a legal document.
Was it fake? And why was it generated? Can this be legitimate proof of marriage?
In order to properly evaluate this document, we have to understand the context surrounding the circumstance of its creation.
We know from family folklore that the groom married his second wife sometime in the mid-1890s in Union County, Ga., based on the birth of their first child in 1896. But folklore and supposition are not proof.
The first piece of evidence to examine are the signatures on the marriage certificate. S.Y. Jarrett was the county clerk of record on this certificate and a comparison with other documents indicates that his signature was authentic and he was guilty of poor penmanship. In addition, Jarrett was in office during the alleged timeframe of the marriage. The marriage officiator, a prominent Baptist preacher, also signed the suspect certificate and his signature was borne out by other examples of his handwriting. The document also had an embossed seal.
Second, look at the county history where this document was produced. As with most Georgia counties, Union was a “burnt county” – the courthouse and most of the records stored there were destroyed in a fire in 1899. However, looking at the few surviving documents is a must. We found a county log book, which recorded the marriage as the date found on the certificate with the signatures of the officials present during that timeframe. Looks good, but there is still a missing piece of the puzzle. Why go to the trouble of creating this marriage certificate after the fact?
Here, we turned to state and federal records for what was going on legislatively during the early 20th century.
In the 1890s, Georgia broadened a Confederate pension law to include disabled and indigent veterans or their widows. While the groom lived a long life, he had been injured in the war; and his widow was poverty stricken at his death. Performing a quick check of the pension applications on Fold3.com, we find her petition, along with the original redone marriage certificate. So we can assume that the document was created in order to prove her eligibility for an allotment. The certificate was accepted by the government, as she did receive payment for her husband’s service.
So all in all, the marriage certificate, despite its flaws, appears to be a genuine and legal re-creation of a record lost in the fire of 1899.
To sum up, it’s always a good idea to research any document that has an unknown provenance and understand the context in which it may have been produced. Make note of the county clerks of the era, along with those auxiliary officials, such as ministers or justices of the peace. Investigate the county history and ask questions; such as, when it was formed (early records could be in another pre-existing county) and were there any major disasters that might have damaged or destroyed records. Finally, learn about pension and/or compensation laws for service rendered, who was eligible and when.
All of these “facts” will help you present a case for a “reasonably exhaustive research” on proving the validity of information. This is especially helpful when you are conducting lineage work. With any luck, you may be able to prove that scrap piece of paper is valuable after all.
The volunteers at the Augusta Genealogical Society will be happy to help guide and provide you tips for your research. The Adamson Library/Augusta Genealogy Society is located at 1109 Broad St. in the heart of Augusta. The hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday; and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
If you have a question for the Augusta Genealogical Society, e-mail it, with “Ancestor Search” in the subject line, to AugustaGenSociety@comcast.org.