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Beware the sometimes-twisted paper trail

Published July 15, 2004

I recently spent time researching in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where the state mottos are, respectively, "Road Under Construction" and "Those Records Burned in a Fire."

Documents are more plentiful and easier to come by in Pennsylvania than Maryland. But in both states, information discrepancies make it imperative to obtain as much documentation as possible to prove major life events, such as birth, marriage and death.

Take the case of Jozef Karhniak and Anna Uhrin, who were married in Westmoreland County, Pa., in 1890. They stated on their marriage license application that they were born in Austria-Hungary.

When their son, Andrew Carnack, married in 1934, he said his father, Joseph Carnack, was born in Austria and his mother, Anna Uhran, was born in Germany.

Actually, his parents were born in what is now Slovakia, and clearly, the spelling of his parents' names had evolved. Andrew's brother, Steve, spelled his surname Carnock.

And consider John Shelley, who claimed on his marriage license application that his father, Harry, was born in Philadelphia. But Harry was born across the river in Burlington, N.J. That would make a huge difference to a researcher who was scouring Pennsylvania records looking for Harry's birth certificate.

Because marriage license applications are among the most accurate resources, these examples should give every serious rooter pause.

Here's another example.

No marriage record exists in Westmoreland County for Daniel Shelley, who married in 1969. He was and still is a resident of that county. He swore he took out his marriage license in Greensburg, the county seat.

When I mentioned this to the now-divorced college professor, he quipped with a gleam in his eye, "Does that mean it never happened?"

That's what it could mean to someone researching this family 25 years from now, unless that person made the effort to troll the files in neighboring Fayette County, which is where Shelley's license is on file.

Newbie rooters, take note. A marriage license application and a marriage certificate are not synonymous.

The marriage certificate, often kept as a family heirloom and sometimes suitable for framing, comes at the end of the process. That process begins when the couple applies for a marriage license at a county courthouse. That application contains important genealogical information, often including the names of the parents of bride and groom.

Most states began requiring marriage applications in the 1880s, but earlier records exist. Check courthouses and state archives.

* * *

Read past Donna Murray Allen columns online at Type "Donna Murray Allen" in the search box. You can write to Allen c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at Her Web site includes information on classes and lectures. Allen welcomes questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns.

[Last modified July 14, 2004, 11:56:07]

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