Thursday, April 2, 2015

New England’s “Gretna Green” – Why so many out of state marriages in Seabrook, New Hampshire?

Since 1754 Gretna Green has attained mythical status as a place for weddings.   Couples eloped to Gretna Green, on the border of Scotland to avoid the “reading of the banns”.  This tradition in England posted the names of the couples intending to marry for three Sundays prior to the wedding.  This was a legal notice so that anyone had time to object to the wedding.   The law did not pertain to Scotland, and so Gretna Green became a sort of Reno or Las Vegas for quick weddings.

I first became aware of Seabrook, New Hampshire’s wedding reputation as the New England Gretna Green when an elderly auntie whispered to me “They were married in Seabrook, you know” with a knowing nod.  No, I didn’t know what that meant, so I had to find out!

Sneaking over the border to avoid parental disapproval has a long history.  In Massachusetts couples could sneak over many borders – New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Connecticut or Rhode Island.  Somehow the tiny town of Seabrook, on the Massachusetts border, became a magnet for elopements.  This tradition goes way back to the 1700s at least.  I found this passage in A Porter Pedigree: Being an Account of the Ancestry and Descendants of Samuel and Martha (Perley) Pporter of Chester, N.H., who were descendants of John Porter of Salem, Mass., and of Allan Perley, of Ipswich, Mass., 1907, page 55  (available to read or download online at  “Samuel Perley… was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Seabrook, N. H., and his parish was said to be a sort of Gretna Green for all the discontented lovers in Massachusetts.”   He was pastor there from 1765 until 1775 when he removed to Cockermouth, now known as Groton, New Hampshire to be the minister to a new church.

An interesting place to look up some of these early Seabrook marriages is in “Marriages of Maine Residents by Rev. Samuel Perley, 1767 – 1775”, from the New England Historical and Genealogical Society Register, Volume 51, pages 460 – 465   (only the marriages of Maine residents have been extracted)

The vital records of Seabrook, including marriages, can be found online at    If you can’t find your ancestor’s marriage in their hometowns, perhaps you should be looking in the Seabrook records!

Apparently the reputation of Seabrook as the place to run to for a quick wedding lasted until the 20th century.  The Kingston Daily Freeman from Kingston, New York, Page 3, Saturday 21 May 1938.  “This town is winning recognition as New England’s Gretna Green, according to marriage license statistics recently announced here.  Last year 658 licenses were issued to couples from all over the New England states, with the largest number from Massachusetts.  All but 13 of the couples were married here.  August had 90 marriages, while February with 14 saw the fewest nuptials.  New Hampshire’s new blood-test law, which becomes effective October 1, is expected to reduce the number.”   These are impressive statistics for a small town, which had only about 1,700 people in 1930. [US Census ]
Seabrook elopements are often referred to in genealogies, such as this one mentioned on RootsWeb
“Alta May Eaton b. 10/5/1886, Warren, MA m. Edward Locke Bennett, 8/31/1909, Seabrook, NH, eloped”.   Check your oral family history, too.  Just like my auntie’s claim, any family disapproval might have sent your ancestors to elope to Seabrook, or to any other destination with a reputation for quick weddings. There are probably equivalent towns to Seabrook or Gretna Green in any region of the United States, or in other countries.  

Or in this interesting story:
The Portsmouth Herald, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 21 September 1939, page 8,
“Arrested on Way to Seabrook to Elope,  Salem, Sept. 21 – Under questioning of State Trooper Roland Savage, who arrested Frederic C. Webber of Cambridge for driving under the influence of liquor and drunkenness, the defendant in District Court Wednesday testified he was employed by the Boston Red Sox.  Judge Sears asked “Do you play first base, or sell peanuts?”  Webber said the outfield or he was a batting practice pitcher and was on the way to Seabrook N. H. to elope with Marguerite McHugh of Watertown when arrested.  He was fined $50 for driving under the influence.”

Portsmouth Herald,  Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Saturday, 18 January 1936, page 1.
“HOLDING MAN ON SERIOUS CHARGE,  Topsfield, An elopement that wasn’t quite an elopement landed Percy Durkee, 27 of Nichols Street, Danvers, in the toils of the law on serious charges and the police are seeking an 18 year old girl as a stubborn child.  Durkee told the State Police that he took the girl to Seabrook N. H. last September to be married but they were refused because they did not have a license.  Later they returned to his home and stayed there for several days before going to Hartford, Conn. where they sought employment.  In October the girl got a job and Durkee returned to his home.  Police are puzzled by the fact that Durkee reported the girl as missing to the local police just about the same time that he took her to New Hampshire to be married.  It was not until last night that he went to the State police to report that she was missing.  He was then accompanied by his parents and those of the girl.  Durkee told the police that he has visited the girl at Hartford since he left her there to come home last October.  Meanwhile Durkee was arraigned in Salem Court on serious charges (Associated Press).”

Not all elopements caused short relationships.  Look at what I found in this obituary:   Obituary for Eleanor Priestley, Hall’s Funeral Home, Thomaston, Maine. 
“Eleanor “eloped” with Harland “Rocky” Priestley Jr. on October 14th, 1944 in Seabrook, N.H.  They later had an official wedding at the Congregational church in Stoneham, Mass.  They also renewed their vows at the First Baptist church in St. George on their 50th wedding anniversary.”

Have you found any elopements or “quick weddings” in your family tree?

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Copyright © 2015, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Yes! My grandparents were married in Seabrook, NH in February 1941.

  2. Hi Heather, What a fun post! I learned that Rhode Island was a Gretna Green for Massachusetts (and Connecticut) folks until early in the 20th century after discovering, to my surprise, an ancestor's marriage notation in a Providence, RI record. Who knew? Happy Easter,