Was the marriage legal?

The legal marriage

It was 97 years ago today that two skinny teenagers, both just 18, stood before a judge in Wichita County, Texas, and spoke the words that would bind them together for more than half a century.

50th anniversary, Opal and Clay Cottrell

50th anniversary, Opal and Clay Cottrell

Clay Rex Cottrell had turned 18 on the 20th of April 1916;1 Opal Robertson had turned 18 on the 21st of August.2 Each of them had lost a parent at the age of 14: Clay’s mother died in July 1912;3 Opal’s father died in March of the same year.4

They declared their love for each other all those years ago today.5 In October 1966, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary; four years later, in September 1970, Clay died. Opal described it in private notes as the worst day of her life, losing her best friend.

And the burning question is: how did Clay and Opal — my maternal grandparents — manage to get hitched, legally, on that day in October, 97 years ago today?

You see, both the Cottrells and the Robertsons were living in Tillman County, Oklahoma, in October 1916. Clay’s parents were separated, his mother had died in 1912,his father most likely was living in Alabama.6 Opal’s mother survived but disapproved of the relationship.

Neither the bride nor the groom had anyone from their families present at the wedding. The story in the family is that nobody even knew they were married until after the marriage license was published in the newspapers.

It had long been my theory that they might have run away to Texas to get married because of the law. That may still be true, but it’s going to take more research than just the statute books to be sure.

You see, I figured that Clay’s family would have been fine with the marriage but with Opal’s mother disapproving, they went to the nearest state where her consent to the marriage wouldn’t have been required.

Not so. Finally got around to checking Oklahoma and Texas law at the time and both Texas and Oklahoma wouldn’t have required Opal’s mother’s consent to the wedding — a girl at age 18 didn’t require parental consent.7

But Clay… ah, Clay. He needed parental consent. Both state statutes required parental consent for boys under the age of 21.8 And Clay couldn’t have gotten his father’s consent — I don’t think at the time he would even have known where he was living.

So… how did they pull that off? One possibility is that they convinced the county judge he knew what he was doing. Texas law allowed a judge to issue consent in cases where any minor has neither parent nor guardian — and the absentee father might have brought that into play.9 And the other possibility is that he lied about his age.

Either is possible… but more work needs to be done.

And… sigh… I sure wish either of them was still alive so I could just ask.


  1. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 70-026729, Clay Rex Cottrell (1970); Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  2. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 95-011808, Opal Robertson Cottrell (1995); Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  3. Oklahoma State Department of Health, Tillman County, death certificate no. 6119, Tillman County, Mrs. M.G. Cottrell, filed 1 Aug 1912.
  4. Oklahoma State Department of Health, Tillman County, death certificate no. 3065, Tillman County, Jasper C. Robertson, filed 15 Mar 1912.
  5. Wichita County, Texas, Marriage Book 5:388, Clay Rex Cottrell and Opal Robertson (1916), marriage license and return; County Clerk’s Office, Wichita Falls.
  6. 1920 U.S. census, Geneva County, Alabama, Hartford, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 105, p. 78(B) (stamped), dwelling 176, family 184, Martin G Cottrell; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 15 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 16.
  7. See Compiled Statutes of Oklahoma (1921) Sec. 7490; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 15 Oct 2013). That law had been the same since at least as early as 1907. And see Vernon’s Sayles’ Annotated Civil Statutes of Texas, Art. 4611 (1914); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 15 Oct 2013).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Vernon’s Sayles’ Annotated Civil Statutes of Texas, Art. 4611 (1914).
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12 Responses to Was the marriage legal?

  1. Tom Young says:

    There is no image posted, but the transcription at familysearch.org says he was 21.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s one of the two explanations, Tom: he lied about his age. Need to get the original license application from Wichita County — thought I had it but it seems I don’t.

  2. John D. Tew says:

    An interesting question indeed and worth pursuing to see what can be discovered. BUT, the bottom line is that both Clay and Opal sure must have known what they were doing since they made it to at least a 50th wedding anniversary based on that nice photo you posted. If Clay convinced the Texas judge to issue consent, the judge made the right call and Clay and Opal proved it so! :-)

  3. Toni says:

    Those hind sight questions! Don’t they just drive ya crazy!

  4. Trudy Smith says:

    I had to chuckle when I read this post. I had a similar situation. When I started doing my research my grandmother was still alive. I asked her when and where she and my grandfather were married. Off I went to the court house to get their marriage certificate (this was pre-internet). No certificate. Back to grandma I go and tell her the certificate wasn’t there. She then told me a different city which was in a different county in a different state so off I go again. You guessed it, no certificate. Back to grandma again and this time she told me the truth. My grandfather wasn’t old enough to get married without consent so they lied about his age after the two failed attempts to obtain a marriage license. I did find the marriage certificate the third time to yet another court house.

  5. DT says:

    The same thought as the title of your blog post went thru my mind when a couple of weeks ago I asked a question of my grandparents about their marriage in 1946.
    I am so glad I asked the question- “What car did you drive to get married?” (They lived in NC and like a lot of people went down to SC to get married where it was easier.) They took my grandfather’s father’s 38 Ford Coupe. They had to drive down (applying 24 hours before was required) and come back the next day. On the paper given them it said to come back at 10pm the next day. They didn’t know any better and did just that. The only person at the courthouse was a janitor and when he found out why they were there, he told them to go to the judge’s house across the street and three houses down and he will marry you.
    The wife answered the door and the judge was asleep, but he got up to marry them. He asked my grandfather how old he was and he said 21(he was). He asked my grandmother and she said 21(she was 17 yrs. 5 mos.). The judge said, “Now Mildred, you don’t have to be but 18″.
    They are still together over 67 years later. So, if the judge knows you are lying about your age, is it still legal?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      LOVE it! That Judge knew the truth, didn’t he? And thought it actually may not have been legal at the time, it would have been ratified by the couple continuing to live as husband and wife after she turned 18. (And after my grandfather turned 21.)

  6. Rondina says:

    This reminds me of my paternal great-grandparents.They both lived in Williamson County, Texas. Her father was so against the marriage that he packed up the family and moved them to Uvalde County to stay with another of his daughters. Unfortunately, my great-grandfather was not deterred and followed. The two eloped to a north Texas county where her dad’s brother lived. He apparently went along with this, probably because he knew that they would marry anyway.

    In that line of my family, no happy picture emerges. If family says, “Don’t marry that guy”—you shouldn’t marry that guy. The marriage was a very unhappy one with the bride dying young from pellagra. This scenario was basically duplicated by their first son. Both men had the same name. When it came time to name her four sons, my grandmother put her foot down. I think she thought the name, rather than the man, was the jink. Maybe she was right. None of her sons turned out to be like their dad or grandfather.

    I wonder how things would have been different if a letter of permission had still been required from a parent.

  7. Julie George says:

    I know of a similar case–he was 18, she was 19. They went to a neighboring county, with his older sister as a witness, and were married after swearing that each was over 21. Their family story is that each had a slip of paper with “21″ written on it in one shoe, so each was standing over the number 21. The marriage lasted 54 years, until the bride’s death. From the comments above, I suspect there are lots of situations similar to this in lots of families. Makes for interesting storytelling in family histories!

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