published Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Hamilton County marriage license records searchable online for the first time

Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles examines a marriage license from 1970 at the County Courthouse on Monday.
Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles examines a marriage license from 1970 at the County Courthouse on Monday.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

WHERE TO LOOK

To search for historic or contemporary marriage license information in Hamilton County, visit www.countyclerkanytime.com.

VIDEO

This story is featured in today's TimesFreePress newscast.

Even before he became Hamilton County clerk, Bill Knowles had a fascination with history and record keeping.

As the unofficial family historian — and a semiofficial lore-keeper for his church — Knowles long has been interested in keeping the pieces of the past in place.

So when he inherited reams of historic marriage licenses and legislative documents after taking office in 1974, it was only a matter of time before he started indexing, cataloging and filing.

Nearly a decade ago — with the help of his employees — Knowles began the long labor of transcribing and digitizing marriage records and century-old meeting minutes. But now, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and the job’s almost through.

“I took an interest in these records to preserve them for posterity. As you can see, some of these are already really difficult to read in their original form,” Knowles said this week as he looked over a faded marriage license index. “We’re going through the old books and getting them in to post online now.”

As of Monday, every marriage recorded in Hamilton County dating back to 1857 can be searched on an online database at the county clerk’s website — all but those that happened from 1966 to 1970.

“We started from the ends and worked our way to the middle. That’s the middle, those four or five years,” Knowles said.

But the marriage records from before 1857 are nowhere to be found. They are believed to have been destroyed either during the Civil War or during the 1910 fire that destroyed the previous Hamilton County Courthouse.

For the same reason, the record of legislative minutes only go back to 1879, Knowles said. Those records are being digitized now and will be posted online soon, Knowles said.

Mary Helms, who works for the local history and genealogy department at the Chattanooga Public Library, says Knowles’ work has been a huge help to residents hoping to learn more about their own history.

“It’s just huge that he’s doing this to aid everyone. When people are researching their families, they seek the vital records, that’s the birth, death and marriage records,” Helms said. “Sometimes, people don’t know the name of the wife, or the name of the husband, and Mr. Knowles has such a good search page that you can search by either bride or groom.”

Helms said the clerk’s site is a major tool for researchers at the library, so much that the library uses the site during its genealogy classes.

She is excited to see the old legislative minutes posted. In days before the current county commission form of government, Hamilton County was governed by a group of justices who held a quarterly court.

The court oversaw minor civil suits, land issues, wills, settlements and minor crimes — all vital information for family historians.

“Court records are an underused source of family and local history, because they have depth and detail about legal matters and family matters,” Helms said. “We buy, in book form, this type of record whenever we can find it for the states that we cover,” Helms said.

Aside from being helpful to curious researchers, Susie Holloway said the online record makes her job easier. Holloway manages Knowle’s main office at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

When residents want a copy of their marriage licenses, it used to take Holloway 10 to 15 minutes to track down and copy.

“Now, it takes two minutes — if that. All we’ve got to do is put a gold seal on it and we’re done,” Holloway said.

For 10 years, clerks in Knowles’ office have been cataloging the marriage records in their free time. He also hired a part-time employee, who works 22 hours a week on the job, Knowles said.

Contact Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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