I am still in the process of tying up loose ends and breaking down brick walls as I finish up a book on one of my families. Yesterday I was able to prove an assumption about a certain couple through the use of various sources. I get frustrated with what I call “lazy genealogists” who may find an individual in one record or census and don’t double check against other sources to make sure that their assumptions are true. It’s too easy to grab on to a find and say, “Oh, here is so and so and she’s a widow so her husband is dead!”. Wrong! For instance, I have found many women listed as “widows” in different census records. One of two assumptions can be made from this. If you already know that the woman was married, you may assume that the husband is dead. If you don’t have a marriage record for that woman, you may assume that she had been married and was now widowed. These two assumptions are not always true. You must check other sources to make sure that your assumptions are true.
In the first case, assuming that a new husband is deceased, the most direct thing to search for is for a definite death record. This isn’t always easy if the individual has a common name, as most of my ancestors seem to have!! The next thing to do, if you can’t find a definite death record, is to see if you can find the husband listed in the census for the same year. I have had more than one instance where I have found a wife listed as “widow” and then found the husband living elsewhere, sometimes with a second family! My last post on this site details one such instance. In another family, the “widow” had immigrated to the US with her son and the “husband” (luckily with a unique name) was still living in Cornwall with a second “wife” and two children. As is usually the case with these second “wives”, I couldn’t find a marriage for either couple. It seems that in 19th Century England, where divorce was not common, an individual would often start a second family and live as husband and wife even though they never married.
The second situation I mentioned, involves a woman listed as widow, but you never found a first marriage. I have found two different reasons for this, and neither involved a “deceased first husband”. In the last post on this site, I outlined a family where the couple separated, the husband started a second family, and the wife moved to a different county and set herself up as a “widow”. In other instances, I have found women who have had illegitimate children and were then listed in the Census as a “widow”. It’s hard to know for sure if they actually presented themselves as widows, especially when living in their home town or if the census taker was guilty of making assumptions himself!
These situations above all show why you can’t make an assumption based on one source. I ran in to another such assumption this week. Years ago when researching a Jane Kiff who “married” a George Rook / Rock, I was never able to find a marriage for the couple. While they were both from the same town in Devon, England, they showed up in 1871 Census in Wales with a 6 year old child. In Devon George always used the “Rook” spelling of his surname. In Wales it was always spelled “Rock”. The family remained in Wales and had many more children.
The fact that I never found a marriage record led me to wonder if George Rook had a first wife who was not deceased and who he didn’t divorce. I never really investigated until I was doing the work on my Kieft book. The first thing I checked was for a marriage for George Rook to someone other than Jane Kiff. Sure enough, a record for a marriage to a Mary Jane Norman in 1854 in Combe Martin. I then found the couple in the 1861 Census in Combe Martin. George’s age and birthplace matched with the George Rook who “married” Jane Kiff. There was still the possibility that Mary Jane was deceased by the time George and Jane hooked up. I continued my search and came across two newspaper articles that sealed the deal on my assumptions being true.
The first notice in early 1865 was Mary Jane noting that she would not be responsible for the debts of her husband George Rook from whom she was separated. So we now have proof that they were in fact separated. The next article was a court report where Jane Kiff accused Mary Jane Rook of assault. Jane claimed that Mary Jane showed up at Jane’s house and demanded that Jane “turn out my man” who was said to be Mary Jane’s husband whom she was separated from. Jane said that before she could answer, Mary Jane assaulted her. The charges were dismissed because the judge said that Jane should not have been “harboring” another woman’s husband. We now not only have proof of the separation, but we now can definitely connect the George Rook who married Mary Jane Norman with the man who later was living with Jane Kiff in Wales. I did a little further checking and found George’s first wife, Mary Jane, stayed in Combe Martin. In 1881 she was boarding with Thomas Darch in Combe Martin and in 1901 Mary Jane, still in Combe Martin, is listed as a “widow”.
The lesson learned here is to never make assumptions based on one source and then use it as a “fact” in your genealogy research. Use a combination of vital records, church records, census and newspaper articles to either prove or disprove your assumption before stating it as fact. Don’t be a “lazy genealogist”.