Modern marriage in Sonoma County breaks traditional molds
On Sept. 23, 1846, Sonoma County issued its first marriage license. John H. J. Hegeler and Carmen Caseres were married in 'the town of Sonoma, in the district of Sonoma, in the territory of California,' as the certificate reads.
Not for another two months was the county's second marriage certificate issued, to Nathaniel Leighton and Maria Gualoupe, also in Sonoma. It would be four more years before California became a state.
In the decades that have passed, marriage has been radically transformed, evolving from an economic necessity to a choice made by couples later in life with most having lived together first. An increasing number of couples also have children before they get married, federal records and reports show.
Marriage: A Timeline
The most revolutionary change is the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Bill Scogland, 88, and Doug Heen, 96, of Santa Rosa decided to wed on a whim two years ago. They'd been together for 63 years at that point.
'We really didn't care except for tax purposes — actually, I think we're paying more as a joint return,' Scogland said, laughing. 'But I mean everybody kept saying, 'When are you going to get married?' And so in 2014, on the spur of the moment, I said, 'Everybody says we should get married. Let's go get married.' So we did that within a week, and everybody was real happy with that. Didn't make any difference to us. It's just a piece of paper.'
They were married on Halloween at the county clerk's office by a woman in a Cinderella costume.
The varied landscape of marriage today would be wholly unrecognizable to Sonoma County's first wedded couple.
For starters, in 2015 alone the county issued 3,201 marriage licenses, an average of about 60 a week.
Increasingly, couples are older when they get hitched for the first time, U.S. Census records show.
In 2010, the age at first marriage for men was 28.2, and for women, 26.1, according to the census bureau. Those figures have risen steadily since 1960, when the age at first marriage reached an all-time low: 22.8 for men, and 20.3 for women.
A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that many young adults in the United States postpone their first marriage, choosing instead to live with a partner first.
'Cohabitation has increasingly become the first co-residential union formed among young adults,' the report states.
More than two-thirds of unions formed between 1997 and 2001 began as a cohabitation rather than as a marriage, the report says.
That step appears to be the analog of marriage in an earlier era, the researchers found. The 'timing of a first union occurs at roughly the same point in the life course as marriage did in the past,' the report says.
The upheaval of social norms around relationships has factored heavily in the transformation of marriage.
'People didn't use to just jump into bed together,' said Priscilla Thomas, 88, at her home in Sebastopol.
Married for 70 years
She and her husband, Al, have been married for seven decades, dating for two years before making it official in October 1945. They celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last year, on a cruise up the California coast with friends.
Traveling and being involved with friends — having that support group — is one of the things they credit with maintaining a happy and long-lasting union.
After retiring, the two joined the Mobile Missionary Assistance Program, traveling through most of the 50 states and helping out at churches, camps, wherever they were needed. That was good for them, too.
'At our age, it's a lot of routine,' Thomas said. 'When we were younger, you'd have to mix it up. You can get in a rut and just be doing the same thing all the time, and that's not good.'
The most important thing, though, for a solid union? Both Thomas and her husband and Scogland and his said it was a foundation of friendship.
'Be friends first and get to know each other,' Thomas said.
'You've gotta be friends,' Scogland said. 'You definitely have to be friends.'
Census figures show the rate of people married by their mid-30s reached its peak during the 1970s and '80s, when only about 6 percent of people age 35 and older were not married and never had been. In 2010, that figure was closer to 14 percent for men and 11 percent for women.
Rate lower in county
In Sonoma County, the marriage rate is actually a little bit lower than California's. Statewide, from 1999 to 2014, the average rate of marriages per 1,000 people was 6.2. In Sonoma County, for the same time period, the average rate was 6.1. The 2015 rate statewide was unavailable; in Sonoma County, it was 6.5 marriages per 1,000 people.