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.

Hannah Harbour

Here is my ancestor Hannah with her husband Joseph Harbour and their children in 1880. Notice the boarder, Rachel Shannon:

1880 Joseph and Hannah

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.

1900 Hannah

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.

Circuit Court

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.

Susie Simpson

In another example, Susie Simpson is reported as widowed in the 1900 census for Washington, DC. She has a daughter Leanna.

1900 Susie Simpson

Susan’s 1905 city directory entry reports her as a widow of John.

1905 City Directory

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:

1910 Leanna Fleet

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:

Susie Simpson

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

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