Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Not Gretna Greens


Where do you find marriage records for your ancestors when the ceremony doesn't seem to have occurred in the place where either bride or groom called home? The presumption is to look for the closest "Gretna Green" and check the records there.

I've been holding out for a marriage record for Dennis Tully, that Irish immigrant to Canada whose wife Margaret's maiden name didn't seem to match up with records I had for my father-in-law's Denis Tully. My goal in looking for Dennis' marriage to Margaret Hurley is the hope that their record would reveal something I've yet to find back in Dennis' Irish birthplace: names of parents.

Since there is no record that I can find anywhere near County Tipperary, where our Tully family originated in Ireland, I am presuming the ceremony was conducted after the bride and groom arrived in Canada. And yet—so far—no document. That's when the notion of checking Gretna Green possibilities taps me on the shoulder.

The concept we've since labeled "Gretna Green" goes back to a law passed in England in 1753 prohibiting underaged couples from marrying without parental permission. Since laws are apparently made to be circumvented, sure enough, English couples soon discovered they could get around that requirement by marrying somewhere other than England. Conveniently, Scotland at that time had no such restriction, and enterprising lovers slipped over the border to Scotland to exchange their vows. The first town they found where they were free to do so was called Gretna Green.

The name of that tiny village, Gretna Green, soon came to be the label for any place where couples eloped to avoid marriage restrictions imposed in their own hometown. And genealogists eventually learned that, when unable to locate the marriage confirmation for their ancestral couples, they could consult a list of cities which were considered to be Gretna Greens. The FamilySearch wiki, for instance, provides a map of known locations in the United States, as well as a chart which begins, "If your ancestor is from..." (fill in the name of a family city or region), "Then check here...."

Though the chart mainly focuses on United States cities and regions, I noticed there were several entries for Canada, including one for Ontario locations where couples might slip across the border to, for instance, Port Huron, Michigan. 

While that thought might have been tempting for me—Dennis Tully did have some descendants who either married in Port Huron, or even settled there—I still believe that would not be a likely scenario for Dennis Tully and Margaret Hurley, themselves. There are a few reasons I think so. For one thing, each of them was Catholic, and baptismal records I've found for some of their children indicate their intention to follow the tenets of their religion, which would include the Catholic sacrament of marriage—hardly a ceremony they would leave to the closest blacksmith across the border in Gretna Green.

Then, too, while the Gretna Green concept was alive and well long before the time in which Dennis and Margaret would have married—their oldest child was born in 1857, so likely a year prior to that point—the area in Canada in which they settled would not have lent itself easily to slipping across the border. While it is true that the region in which they settled later saw traffic to the United States through places like Port Huron, I would be more interested in confirming the time period in which such movement would have likely occurred—a much later time period, I suspect.

Another reason I'm not capitulating to the Gretna Green concept just yet is that I haven't thoroughly searched the marriage records for the possible locations where either Dennis or Margaret may have settled in the 1850s. Taking a look at the overview for marriages in Ontario, Canada, in the FamilySearch wiki, there are far more resources than just what can be found for our couple—nothing, incidentally—at Ancestry.com. Even so, there may be gaps in what is available in microfilms at FamilySearch, itself, though I won't know until I grind my way through all of the available resources there.

Even so, there are limitations to the microfilms which are available. Many records prior to 1869—and our couple's wedding would fall within this range—were gleaned from church records, not civil records. And even if we could find the right record for the right couple, despite some later records I've found in Ontario with all the information I'm seeking, chances were high that the record itself might be sparse

Fortunately, FamilySearch provides a list of "What else you can try" if initial search attempts bring up nothing. I will likely be checking out the links provided on this list, too. But first, I'll narrow my search to the places where I've been able to find Dennis in the earliest years after his arrival in Canada West. The first possibility would be in Blenheim, where a young, single, man by that name was living with another Irish laborer, two Catholics living in the midst of a page filled with Protestant families in the 1851 census. Could he have met Margaret there? Or did he meet her when he settled in Warwick in Lambton County? Or even in Paris, Brant County, where his possible father lived—and where, later, his first child was born?

These are the three main possibilities I'll be checking as I search for that elusive marriage record for Dennis Tully and Margaret Hurley. It makes more sense to look at those locations—or the geographic region closely surrounding those locations—than to strike out to intuit which Gretna Green location might have been the favorite spot for eloping couples in the late 1850s in Canada.

1 comment:

  1. Oh your story is so similar to mine. Where did my Irish-Canadian Catholic gg-grandparents marry when all of their offspring were baptized in Richmond, Ontario? I have almost resolved that the parish priest forgot to write it down. I have the date, based on their 50th anniversary celebration. On another note, my grandparents were not married in either hometown, but the town where her aunt lived.


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