I once heard a lecturer say that up to 60% of the time, people are researching the wrong woman as mother of the children. This example shows the need to prove the father’s relationship to a child separately from the mother’s relationship to the child.

What does that mean?

London Matthews

Here’s the Freedman’s Bank card for London Mathies:

London Bankcard

London’s bank card dated 8 October 1867 provides the surprise notation that his wife “Martha died in Memphis on Vance St. July 2/67.” Of course, most cards don’t typically include dates of death, so this is a lucky find.

For children, the card says “Willy Franklin 1 yr 2 mos” which could mean one or two children. But let’s combine the evidence in the bank card with London’s 1870 census household:



In this document, London’s wife’s name is Amanda. With one year old son Jackson in the household, we can probably safely conclude that London remarried and had another son.

What these records *together* show is that Amanda is not the mother of the first son William or as the bank card calls him, Willy Franklin.

William’s mother was probably Martha. If we viewed this census record in isolation, we might incorrectly assume this was a man and a wife and their two children. Of course, we’d try to find London’s marriage records to confirm our hypothesis.

We could also try to find church or burial records that may confirm the death of his wife and perhaps births or baptisms of the children.

Don’t assume that the wife in any household is the mother of all of the children in the household. That relationship must be proven separately.

John Campbell

Here’s another good example. This is a 1910 census household for John Campbell (1910):



If you know how to properly extract every clue from census records, you’ll notice that the little M2 means that John Campbell has been married more than once. However, this is his wife Harriet’s first marriage (M1).

You’ll also see that Harriet has birthed two children and two are living. This implies that the last two children are not Harriet’s children (Thanks for the correction, Rolanda!)

Same thing with this third example from Samuel Burrow’s 1910 household:



Samuel’s marriage to Carrie has not produced any children yet; it’s her first marriage and his 2nd (or more) marriage. The two children in the household are probably his from a previous marriage.

Watch Out for This

If it’s the husband’s subsequent marriage, the children are not shown as “step” children because the census records only state the relationship to the head of the household.

If it’s the husband’s first marriage and the wife’s subsequent marriage, and she brings children, the children should be properly noted as “step” children, as they are here:

Perry Davis

Perry Davis

Here’s the rub: only the 1910 census requires an “M1” or an “M2” designator for number of marriages. And, the “M2” designator means married more than once. It could be a 2nd marriage or a 4th marriage, and it will still be marked “M2”.

Differences in Census Information

  • the 1900 census provides the number of years married and the number of children born and living for the women. It does not provide the number of marriages as shown in this example.
  • the 1930 census provides age at first marriage. Doesn’t necessarily mean the person was married at that time to the current spouse.
  • a “D” indicates divorced in the 1900-1940 censuses. If you see that, be sure to find the divorce record.

All of these differences in what information each census provides is critical to interpreting it correctly. Incorrectly interpreting the census can lead you astray in your research.

Closing Tips

It goes without saying that  census records have high degrees of error rates and should be approached with caution. The census enumerator may not have recorded the information correctly. The family member may not have accurately reported their marital status. Even when their husbands were not dead, women often said they were widowed.

It goes without saying that information in the census records should be correlated with other records that illuminate a family.

It goes without saying that people can and did have children before and outside of marriages.

So how can you prove the relationship to the wife as mother of the children? Here are a few ways:

  • *Sometimes simple age deductions can rule out the current wife as mother of the children. (i.e., most women aren’t birthing children at age 13).
  • *If the husband dies first, and the widowed wife then heads the census household, the stated relationship of any children in the household will be to her.
  • *Marriage and death certificates of the children can name parents.
  • *Estate or probate records after the father’s death may illuminate children and wives.
  • *Bible records, church records, military pensions, obituaries and land records  may be used to prove a woman’s relationship to household children.

Examine your census records. Ask yourself, for each family unit: Is the wife really the mother of all of the children? The answer may surprise you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email