Monday, June 28, 2010

Frank and Jennie: Anatomy of a Marriage Record

I'm always excited when I find out a person I'm researching spent some time in the Evergreen State. Why? Because the Washington State Digital Archives rocks! (...Rock?)

The Digital Archives is run by the Washington State Archives, itself funded and run by the state government of Washington. According to the latest numbers on the Digital Archives website, it already hosts 28 million searchable records, with more added every month. These are public records, publicly available: you don't have to pay any fees to access them, and you'll never be ambushed with login screens or ads for partner services.

I'm not against pay-to-access services, because I know how much work it takes to digitize records and maintain databases. But it's wonderful to see a state government making such a commitment to preserving its records and bringing them to a broader public than just folks who can afford to pay endless user fees or travel to far-distant county courthouses.

The folks who put together the Digital Archives put a lot of thought into the basic interface and how information is organized. Go to the home page and what's the first thing you see?

The search box, right next to a list of collections. Most other online archives I've visited want to tell you all about themselves first thing, maybe get you to stop by their offices for a chat. Or they're so desperate to explain how all their various digital holdings are organized (sometimes it doesn't seem that they are) that it takes you pages of reading to figure out how to access anything; by then, of course, you can't remember what led you to that site in the first place.

So, Washington State Digital Archives, you've impressed me with your handy search-box. Let's plug in my great-grandfather Frank Murray's name and see what you turn up.

The search is not case-sensitive, so I don't have to worry about capitalizing anything. The search engine also has some ability to return partial matches. If I give it a few letters, it'll search for everything that begins with those letters--so if I enter "Williams," it will also return results for "Williamson." One limitation is that it's not pre-programmed to search for nicknames or common spelling variants: my search for "Frank Murray" won't include any Frank Murrys or Murreys or men with the first name Francis. I don't mind this too much, though: I'd rather have a basic tool that works than a fancy one that doesn't.

The "Record Series" option defaults to "All Record Series," and that's where I've decided to leave it for now. I could have restricted my search to any of a number of categories from that drop-down list or explored the other clickable search options, but I haven't. So without any restrictions, here's what I get when I hit the search button (and you can click on this or any of the other images in this post for a larger view):

Great, huh? My search has turned up results in eleven neatly sorted categories! Very few of these are likely to be my Frank Murray (I know none of the military hits are him, for example), but the folks at the Washington State Digital Archives have presented me with several different options for narrowing my search. Let's see what happens if I just click the plus sign next to "Marriage Records":

Zoom! Sub-categories for individual counties! Now, since my family sources say that my great-grandfather married his wife, Jennie Ryan, in Whitman County in 1913, I could, at this point, click on "Whitman Marriage Records" and just look at the 2 results that are waiting for me there. To give an idea how the system works, though, I'll click "Show All Records" to see all the marriage-record hits for the different counties. 31 hits doesn't seem like too many to sort through.

As you can see, it's not only showing me all the Frank Murrays, it's showing me all the Franks who married Murrays. This is not always helpful, but I've quite often searched for one person this way and unexpectedly found another relative instead, so you never know.

If all the extra results are distracting me, I can always re-sort them by ANY of the result fields--groom's first or last name, bride's first or last name, marriage year, county, etc. All I have to do is click on the arrow right below the category name to re-sort--and I can toggle between ascending order (first to last) and descending order (last to first). This simple yet surprisingly uncommon feature is unbelievably handy if I want my search to be broad (all the Murrays) but I only want to look at a certain range of information in another category (the 1910s). If I sort the results by that other category, I can easily breeze past the totally irrelevant hits to the ones I think I might be interested in.

You'll also notice that I've been presented with a new, specialized marriage-record search-box just above my results. Nice! I can use it to quickly narrow my results or pursue other lines of inquiry. Say, for example, that I am intrigued by the seventh couple on my list, Frank Arthur Murray and Margie Marie Bacon, and I want to see how many other Franks married Bacons in the state of Washington. Do I have to trudge back to the main search page and fiddle around with advanced options just to satisfy my idle curiosity? No! I can be both curious and idle right here! And, once I've indulged my whim (I found nine Frank-Bacon weddings), I can then return to my previous search with a simple click of the "back" button.

As for Frank Murray and Jennie Ryan, they turned up right where I expected them to on the results list:

It looks like they really were married in Whitman County in 1913, just like all my family sources said. But why are there two results? I'll click on the first one and see what comes up.

Okay, now I have a specific marriage date and some bibliographic info on the record. But what I'm really interested in is that business to the side: "Images are available for FREE online." So what is this mystery record? Will they let me see it?

Hey! It's my great-grandparents' marriage certificate! How cool is that? I didn't have to pay a search fee or wait three weeks to get it--and I can order a certified copy right from the results page if I want.

Here's how Mom summed up the information that had been passed down about Frank and Jennie's marriage in some notes she made in 2005:
The young couple got married in the Catholic church in Rosalia, Washington, on September 25, 1913. Will and Jess Ryan were the best man and matron of honor at the wedding. Patrick Ryan [Jennie's father] did not attend because the groom was not a Catholic.
The marriage confirms nearly all the family's details. Frank and Jennie were indeed wed on September 25, 1913, at Holy Rosary Catholic church in Rosalia. The event was witnessed by Jennie's brother Thomas William "Will" Ryan and his wife, Jessie (Clark) Ryan. (Here Will and Jess have signed themselves as "T W Ryan" and "Mrs. T. W. Ryan.") The only family information this document has nothing to say about is whether or not Jennie's father attended the wedding.

But what about that other record? Is it just a duplicate? I'll cut to the chase and give you the goods right off.

The other record, it turns out, is a marriage return. As I understand it, a marriage return is/was a form (no idea if they're still used) that the person who performed the marriage filled out and sent back to the local government so that the marriage could be officially recorded. While the certificate gives details about the wedding, the return explains more about who the bride and groom were. A quick overview of the information on Frank and Jennie's marriage return will make it clear just how valuable a record it is.

According to this document, on his wedding day, Frank was a 30-year-old white farmer living in Pullman, Washington. He was born in Illinois, his parents were Maxwell Murray and Lucy Kincaid, and he had never been married before. Jennie, meanwhile, was a 28-year-old white Pullman resident (no occupation listed). Her parents were Patrick Ryan and Jane White, she was born in New York, and she had never been married, either.

Now, Frank probably wasn't actually living within Pullman city limits at the time of his marriage, and the ages that both he and Jennie gave were probably wrong. But this is could be the only official document that names both of their parents. This is especially important for Frank, who may not have ever had a birth record and may not appear in his parents' household in any surviving census (issues I'll be talking about in a future post).

These two documents, as you can imagine, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what's available on the Washington State Digital Archives. Anyone who has relatives with Washington connections should poke around and see what they can find.

I should note, before I sign off, that the Digital Archives' marriage records almost always contain more information than is indexed and (therefore) searchable. The two documents I found are fairly typical: no information beyond the bride's name, groom's name, and marriage date has been indexed. So, for example, I couldn't run a Digital Archives search for "Lucy Kincaid" and expect to find Frank and Jennie's marriage return, nor could I look up the priest's name (which I can't really read anyway) and end up with a list of the couples he'd married. And there are gaps in the records, as in any other collection. Some originals have no doubt been lost over the years; some have yet to be digitized; and some are protected by privacy laws. So, as with any other type of research, the more information you already have, the greater your chances of uncovering something else will be.

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