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Relatively Speaking: Was she his second or third wife?

Dec. 16, 2010 at 6:16 a.m.


By Martha Jones

In generations past, female ancestors faced death from childbirth, hostile living conditions, epidemics, and numerous other tragedies. Often they died young, leaving a husband with children to rear. In most instances, the young father then looked for someone to marry, help with the children, and take care of the home. Often he sought his wife's unmarried relatives living only a few houses away, single or widowed women in his church or community, or match-making by family or friends.

Therefore, it is always prudent to question whether the wife listed in the U.S. Federal Census Records especially 1850 to 1870 when relationships were not given, was the only wife and thus, the mother of all the children listed.

Clues to a potential second or third marriage: Prior to birth control, women usually had babies every two years during child bearing days. If there is a gap of more than three or four years between children in the family, researchers must ask: 1) whether a child died 2) the older children were from a previous marriage, 3) the younger ones were grandchildren by the same surname, 4) if any of the children were the wife's by a previous marriage but listed under the new husband's name.

Look for large age inconsistencies between census years. It is not uncommon for some women to age less than 10 years in the decade, but it may also indicate a new wife, even one with the same name which can present an entanglement. Check for age consistencies in all available census years. Look for a pattern and, if questions arise, look for marriage records, church records and county histories for mention of the family.

More recent census records indicate the approximate marriage date. Children born prior to that date may indicate a previous wife. This, however, must be carefully checked because of error in recalling the marriage date, an illegitimate birth, or the couple may have lived in a remote community with ministers who came only periodically. Some census records will list M1 for first marriage and M2 for second marriage under the "marital status" column.

The U.S. 1930 Federal Census enumerates the age of each person at the time of his or her first marriage, which can often provide a good clue to a previous marriage when that age does not match with the marriage date for the couple. In addition, always look for children with different last names in census records as well. If they are listed as sons or daughters, they likely are from a previous marriage for the wife or husband, if they were his stepchildren. Trace the children through all existing census years for potential clues to their family connection.

If questions still persist, you may need to investigate the following options:

Interview older relatives and family friends

Search for family letters and diaries

Research court records for a will or probate records of a parent naming a married daughter and her husband

Look for a deed or gift from a parent to a married daughter and her husband

Search for a deed whereby a daughter and her husband sold property she inherited

Happy Researching for a second or third wife.

E-mail genealogy queries to mjones@vicad.com. VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.

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