Mason Colvin Marriage to Elizabeth Hawkins: April 24 1788, Culpeper County, Virginia?


Screenshot of Ancestry.com's fee-based database. Is this really the best way to find an early Virginia marriage record?

Screenshot of Ancestry.com’s fee-based database. Is this really the best way to find an early Virginia marriage record?

Recently, I went sleuthing for a marriage record for one of the British Colonial American Culpeper County, Virginia Colvins.  I noticed in my initial foray  that the date used for Mason Colvin and his wife, Elizabeth Hawkins, was April 24, 1788,  but nowhere could I find a citation of an actual record. Most researchers, it became quickly evident, were using a date based on lists compiled by Ancestry.com, which they call “databases”.  One such popular database is called, “Virginia Marriages 1660-1800”  which bore an entry containing the date already noted.[1] It appears, in fact, quite slavishly in numerous family trees wherein the same database is typically cited.  However, nowhere is an actual primary record cited. There is apparently a good reason for this. Read on.

When one examines the source citation for this database, however, he finds it is based on work done by someone named,  Jordan Dodd, who was apparently under contract with something called Liahona Research, based, apparently out of either the LDS church or their affiliated library in Salt Lake City, Utah. While that, in itself, isn’t troublesome, what is a bit suspicious, is the disclaimer in the source citation from Ancestry.com regarding this resource. “These marriage records, compiled by Liahona Research at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT, unfortunately do not contain citations for the origin of each entry.”

Yes. You read that correctly. Nowhere is one given information as to where Dodd obtained his data.

If however, one would like more information on this database, the entry explains, he can visit the http://www.familysearch.org  wiki on Culpeper County, Virginia. There, under the heading, “marriage,” (amid their bulleted list of sources,)  he will find Ancestry.com’s so-called database – Dodd’s uncited work.  In other words, he’ll  be sent in a complete circle, directing him back to  that original uncited Ancestry’ database from whence he came. In short, the quest to verify dates on said previously-named databases are not verifiable through primary sources — a rather odd feature of a genealogy company who primary advertised service is offering genealogical records to establish family history.

What to do?  The first thing to remember is: the date may be correct, and even if not, the record may actually exist. Thus the question becomes: where to find it?

In Virginia, there are two ways to find a marriage record during  what known as the Federal period (1788-1800) which  typically  occur in the form of a marriage bond and often as a listing on a county marriage registry if the marriage was performed by an Anglican priest.  Personally, I avoid Family History Center (FHC ) microfilms which are controlled by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) simply because I don’t see the point of “renting” microfilms and commodifying public records to  which access is usually free.  I avoid this trap by going straight to the records themselves and finding them is easier than ever.  In this case, the marriage index and registry listings on microfilm are directly available from the Library of Virginia via Inter-library loan. Microfilms are basically photographs of the original records. In Virginia State Library’s case, two separate reels of microfilms are available to the public regarding early Culpeper County marriages on  Reel 60, the Index, and Reel 50, the Registry. At the Library of Virginia Culpeper County Microfilm webpage, the entry looks like this: [2]

60  ILL Index to Marriage Records, 1781 – 1950, Male A – Z, 352 p.

50  ILL Marriage Register, 1781 – 1853 c, (VSL ms compilation), 117 p.

I find it disappointing that Ancestry.com hasn’t bother to digitize these records and offer them, indexed since they already charged their customers upwards of $300.00 a year to use customized “databases,” which, in many cases, are simply indexes.[3]  But indices are never a suitable substitute for a primary source record.  Especially when, in the case of Mason Colvin’s marriage to Elizabeth Hawkins, no one seems interested in producing the record  created at the time of the event which could actually prove it.

Soon I will be going to my local genealogy library, which happens to be quite substantial, and look through the reels mentioned. A call ahead confirmed the library had them. I hope to find what I’m looking for. If not, those using Dodd’s un-cited resource will have a serious problem and will need to re-think this marriage.

Finally, a word of caution regarding using early Virginia marriage registries. In the context of early Virginia religious practices and laws, “dissident ” was the name given to any person of faith in Virginia who subscribed to any non-Anglican denomination. Baptist, for example, were considered “dissidents” and their marriages were often not recorded in early marriage registries, although the betrothed (or a family member or dear friend of same,) always had to pay the clerk his filing fee, which accounts for why the bonds often show up in county records, but the licenses issued by the dissident Baptist preacher (they appear on registries, if they show up ,  as “M.G.” – meaning, Minister of the Gospel), do not show up necessarily in the “return”lists. [4] There have been excellent scholarly treatments of this religious conflict in Virginia’s pre-Disestablishment years, although genealogists make too little use of them and think mistakenly the marriage never took place or speculate wildly about the couple’s marital status. True, Baptists and other non-Anglican faithful had a tough go of it, but they could and did marry.

[1] Jordan Dodd,. “Virginia, Marriages, 1660-1800” [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 1997. http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=3002

[2] Library of Virginia, Culpeper County Microfilms webpage, http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/local/results_all.asp?CountyID=VA067#MAR

[3] To be fair, let me go on record admitting that Ancestry.com has digitized some  microfilmed marriage registries. Some early Colvin Pendleton County, Kentucky, marriages for example, can be verified, through some registry  microfilms that have been scanned. But Ancestry.com’s heavily reliance on secondary sources is evident throughout their online catalogue.

[4] The basic matrimonial process went as follows. The couple to be wed, went to the clerk (usually the male), paid the bond (surety), which was recorded, and the Clerk issued the license. The couple were married, the preacher/ priest, sign the licence after the ceremony then returned it (usually monthly along with the other similar documents) to the County clerk who then recorded it in the county marriage registry. If one finds a marriage bond, but no minister’s return or the name of the wedded party in a marriage register y, it likely means the couple were Dissidents. This is usually confirmed by finding them, if possible, in church records of the period which may list  them as members.

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About Alex Colvin

Senior, History, minoring in Anthropology, University of Houston. Charter President, Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society, (Webb UH Main 2014-2015) University of Houston. Additional credentials can be found in the CV / Services tab.
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