|Cousin Jack and his bride Heather|
First, let's discuss the different forms of marriage records that you will come across and what you'll most likely find. The Marriage Index is usually a searchable database or record book (Marriage Register) of all marriages performed in a certain area for a certain time. This record usually includes the names of the bride and groom and the date of marriage, but little else. A Consent Affidavit would be a form filled out by a parent or guardian of an underage groom/bride to prove that the marriage contract was accepted by an adult who understood the consequences of marriage. Not all marriages required one to be written, some only needed a verbal consent. So you may not find this in your search. A Declaration of Intent is a written or verbal statement that these two people want to marry and are legally able to do so. Banns and Intentions were published documents declaring the intent of the couple to marry and a challenge should anyone object. Churches usually read aloud the Banns ("if anyone objects to this union....") during services/the ceremony. Intentions were usually posted in a public forum (like an newspaper engagement notice today) so the locals had the opportunity to object. These weren't always required, so again, you may not find them for your records. Bonds were usually a document of a fee that the groom and/or the father/brother of the bride posted to off-set litigation costs should the marriage be nullified. If your record has this, it's a great place to find names of the bride's relatives or guardians. Marriage Licenses are the most common and usually have the most information. These were usually filled out and returned to the county clerk for filing, so you will usually find these in the county records office. They could include names, ages, dates, witness/guardian names, races, and residence information. Licenses are usually confused for Certificates, which are the papers that are given/mailed to the couple and kept in their records as proof of their union. These are usually found in your family's files and may not have all the information a License has.
To find the record you're looking for, you need to know where to look. The most obvious place is going to be where the couple was living prior to their marriage. You can find clues in censuses to where they lived (some years even asked for the year or length of marriage) and go from there. Now, I have one word of caution on this: some people would travel great distances (one or two states over) if they wanted to get married quicker or with fewer legal complications. For example: my grandparents married in Clay County, Arkansas. Clay county became a "marriage mecca", because it allowed marriages to wave the three day wait if there was a special reason (and to the judge in Clay county, all marriages were special!). So even though they lived in Indiana, they went south with their witnesses so they could marry right away. Keep an open mind in your searches if you don't find the record where you think it should be.
What if you can't find an official record? Well, you can try churches in their area. Sometimes there may not have been an official depository for marriage records. Territories didn't have a "government" as we know it, so the churches would perform marriages and keep the records. Also peruse newspapers. Now, not all newspapers are online. And there's no main database. So you may need to go to a library, contact a historical society, or contact local newspapers to find an archive. Not everyone announced an engagement/marriage, so you may not get the answers you want.
When did people start recording marriages officially? Well, that'll depend on the area. Most marriage records will be at county level. You can Google search "vital records" of whatever location you are looking for and a link or two will come up telling when records started to be kept, where to find them, and how to contact the office to request a copy. With few exceptions, most vital records will have began sometime in the 1800's for the States. Some a little sooner, some a little later. Ancestry has many marriage indexes and even has some images. If they don't have a copy of the actual record, they usually have a link on how to order it, so it's an excellent first stop.
Because this record can hold so much detail about someone's adult life, especially women, it can be the holy grail for some researchers trying to make that next big leap back. Don't be discouraged if you don't find it right away, or if it doesn't have all that you need on it. In the end, it is one piece of a very large puzzle. There is more than one road into Rome.