Which was most likely, widowhood or remarriage? It was partially an economic decision. If a widow had enough wherewithal to stay put in the house or on the home farm, she did, especially with younger children for whom she needed to provide a start in life. If she were left less advantageouly situated, economic reality dictated a spouse in order to provide for herself and her children. Economics aside, if she were lonely that might also be an impetus to remarry. It may have been the cultural norm, the climate may have been too rough, primitive or dangerous for a lone woman to hold together a farm or household in the face of natural disasters – floods, fires, snowstorms, tornadoes, or hurricanes, rapacious landlords, Indian raids, greedy bankers or unscrupulous neighbors.
Marriage Norms – Spinster, Wife, Widow
Lost a Woman? Moved? Married? Died?
Genealogical research progress is often stumped when in the course of researching a family, sometimes you misplace a family member and she seems irretreivably lost. In general there are several reasons you can’t find her.
- a combination of the three
Locate all the members of her extended nuclear family, parents and siblings to see if she moved with them. Widen that circle to include close first cousins, a favorite aunt, or a childhood best friend.
Search the marriage records and check to see if she moved with her new family.
Perhaps she died and was buried in an unmarked grave in the family burial ground with only a one line mention in the newspaper or better yet for proof into the ages, review the plot cards to see if there is a grave of an unknown woman amongst the family plots.
Worst case scenario, she married, moved and then died in an unknown location or moved, married and then died.
One scenario trips me up, is the widow who remarried. One of my grandfathers was one of nine boys, so I had eight great-uncles, all of whom married. Of those nine brothers, eight predeceased their wives, and in the remaining thirty years, only one of those wives, one great-aunt by marriage, remarried. In my mind widowhood is the norm, the logical reponse. I forget to check for second marriages after the death of a spouse. I don’t forget to check after finding a divorce, but I do if the first marriage ended in her being a widow.
Investigate the marriage and family norms in your family lines, in their specific time and place. In some large merchant families, only one son and one daughter married, the others stayed in the home place and worked in the store, but didn’t marry and have children. In some families in specific places and times, for instance on the colonial frontier, young women were generally married between fifteen and twenty years. In the cities on the East Coast at the same time, fifteen was young to marry. If the family was economically disadvantaged, girls that young hired out to make money. If the family was wealthy, the girls were finished and then married between eighteen and twenty five. For adventursome young lovers, there was always the option of running away out west to make a fortune. Maybe in a specific farming community, the eldest son got the farm and the eldest daughter got a dowry and the other children helped out, but didn’t marry.
Check the norms for each specific time, place and family. Did all or most of the siblings marry? Did all or most of the children marry? At what ages for each gender? Was divorce common, was remarriage common? Was remarriage more common after divorce or after the death of a spouse? Was remarriage more common for men after the death of a spouse or for women after the death of a spouse? Was non marriage common, the proliferation of spinsters and bachelors, were children out of wedlock common, were large or small families the standard? Get a feeling for the norms in the community of your ancestors, so you can make reasonable hypotheses about their lives. The norms in Las Vegas, Nevada, Hollywood, California or retirement communities in Florida or Arizona may be very different from those in small rural towns in mid-America. It is likely someone has written a thesis or an article about the sociological norms in the community, check the local colleges to find that article or thesis.
I have a friend who in her fifties, moved to a golfing retirement community outside Atlanta. She told me the norm there is not to remarry and thus jeopardize your first husband’s pension and/or social security benefits, but rather to live together and enjoy two pensions. While there are exceptions to every rule, check out the possibilitiy of remarriage if a woman aseems to disappear fter the death of her husband. She may have died soon after, moved across the country to live with her sister or she may be in the same place or nearby married to someone else, hiding in plain sight under a different name.
An aside: Widowed does not always mean widowed. There were women who claimed to be widows all over the United States who had never been married. There were grass widows, those who were married, but whose husbands were not around because they were either traveling or separated, those who were divorced but who prefered to have the neighbors think they were widowed and those whose children were illegitimate and who chose the cloak of widowhood to lend legitimacy to their households.