Before I get into this post, I want to let you know how excited I am about the next webinar I’ll be presenting on Saturday, June 26, 2021 at 1:00 pm EST. Aaron Dorsey and I will be presenting on Finding the Last Slaveowner: Guidance and Case Studies, and this will be a 2-hour extended event.
Slave research, which can be difficult, is always a topic worthy of a deep dive and Aaron and I have numerous case studies that are sure to grow your skills. If you can’t make the date, remember that all registrants recieve the recorded video about a week after the lecture, and can watch for up to a month afterwards.
The cost is $25, and if you’d like to register for it now before all the seats are gone, you can at:
Finding the Last Slaveowner Registration
Now onto the subject at hand.
Census records serve as the foundation and backbone of much of our research. But there are numerous pitfalls and traps just waiting for us in the census. I’ve talked about a few already here at Reclaiming Kin.
Here’s another one.
That female ancestor you find in the census who is marked as a widow might not be a widow.
Historically, divorce was often considered shameful. Divorced women of the past often chose to represent themselves to the census taker as widowed instead.
Here is my ancestor Hannah with her husband Joseph Harbour and their children in 1880. Notice the boarder, Rachel Shannon:
By 1900, the census reported that Hannah was widowed. The beginning genealogist that I was back then believed it. I didn’t know anything about how to evaluate evidence or that sources often contain inaccurate information.
Poor Hannah. Researching local court records revealed that her husband Joseph had gotten caught “messing around” as Ray Charles used to say, with Rachel Shannon. Remember her? She was the woman boarding with the couple in 1880.
He apparently divorced Hannah and married Rachel. But Rachel soon discovered that that was not a good idea, when she had her own contentious and very ugly divorce from Joseph in the 1890s.
Joseph also spent much of the 1880s and 1890s being charged with various crimes.
Joseph may have died by 1900, but Hannah was not widowed. She went on to remarry, have more children and, I hope, to happier times.
In another example, Susie Simpson is reported as widowed in the 1900 census for Washington, DC. She has a daughter Leanna.
Susan’s 1905 city directory entry reports her as a widow of John.
There is no recorded marriage for Susie in DC or the surrounding Maryland counties. There is no birth record for Leanna in DC records of the time that might record her father’s name.
Leanna married three times. The informant on her death certificate reported her mother’s name, but did not know her father’s name.
But Leanna, in her social security application, recorded her father’s name as Edward G. Fleet.And it is likely the same Leanna who was reported as “Lena Fleet” in a 1910 DC census, lodging with another family:
At her death, Leanna’s mother Susie’s body was removed from DC. Her body was taken to Montgomery County, Maryland, where Susie was buried in a cluster alongside her Simpson-surnamed siblings:
Her daughter Leanna remembered her mother in several newspaper ads:
These were important since they revealed Susie’s middle name of Louisa. That name tied her even more definitively to the siblings she is buried near, since that was their mother’s name.
Susie’s daughter Leanna was almost certainly conceived out of wedlock. Susie called herself a widow but she was not. More sadly, Susie conceived a child with her brother-in-law Edward G. Fleet, the husband of her sister Lucinda Simpson Fleet.
I’m glad the stigma is gone from divorce. Though no one ever wants or plans to get divorced, sometimes it’s necessary. Do I hear an Amen out there?
But as this post illustrates, never take the description of a woman as a widow in the census as accurate on its face. Search for marriage, divorce, and death records of the spouse to confirm that status.
We should always remember that these were real people with complicated lives. We can find some information through our research, but still–we weren’t there. Part of the gift of this research is seeing all the ways that there is nothing going on today that hasn’t been going on for most of human existence.
I find a strange comfort in that, if only that in my worst moments I’m no exception to that rule.
If nothing else is true, human beings have always been messy.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Thank you for this. I follow your blog for help researching my maternal ancestors who enslaved people, but this post has helped me make sense of census records for my paternal ancestors in Brooklyn.
I couldn’t figure out why my great-grandmother was listed with her “widowed” mother as boarders in the 1900 US Census, while her father was listed as a “single” boarder in a different household and neighborhood.
I now think there’s a very good chance that my great-greats were divorced or at least separated
What you shared in your comment illustrates this point so very well. I can count on two fingers how many of my ancestors show up in the census marked as divorced, but many, many more of them were in fact divorced.
Thanks for your comment!
Robyn, excellent post. Thanks for sharing your research and insight. This is another explanation of why we have to search for our ancestors beyond the census.
Thanks for your comment, Melissa. I find these little reminders about that tricky census are always useful!