Genealogy thrives as a rewarding hobby because most people in the past
lived orderly lives. We expect them to be born, marry, have children and
die, and that there will be someone to record most of these events somewhere.
Usually this is exactly what happens. All we have to do is find out where
these events were recorded. However, occasionally we come across events
that just do not fit into the orderly scheme of things. Sometimes they
seem to be highly improbable or completely impossible.
In past times marrying outside the family's religion, race, culture or
social class was considered by some to be taboo. If children violated
this rule, some families would disown them and even declare them dead.
In one case the parents not only declared the child dead but went so far
as to erect a tombstone with her name and her marriage date as the death
date. People who were mentally ill or physically deformed might be sent
off to an asylum or hospital and the family would act as if they were
dead. They might be recorded in the family Bible as having died, so when
you find the individual in a census you will be thoroughly confused! A
daughter might also be disowned if she became pregnant and was not married
or a son cut out of the family if he ended up in prison. Obituaries were
generally provided by the families, and facts and children who did not
suit the image the family wished to project could be omitted. If a child
was not mentioned in the obituary in the local hometown paper, it didn't
mean the child didn't exist or was deceased.
Finding disowned children can be very difficult because they often moved
a long way from their original home to a completely different environment.
Someone from Connecticut might move to Idaho or Texas for no apparent
reason. With more national indexes becoming available, it is easier to
locate these people. Since most census indexes are still on a state-by-state
basis, you almost have to check each state as there is no predicting where
they might have gone.
The names of disowned children might turn up in a will or probate. In
a will the parent might want to mention the child just to be sure he or
she is cut out of the inheritance. If there was no will, all living children
would need to be named in legal documents relating to an inheritance.
Even in this day of instant communication with cell phones, pagers and
the Internet, you can still pick up the paper and read about a man who
was married to different women and had two different families, each of
which was unknown to the other. (Why a man would want the responsibilities
of two families and keeping them secret is beyond me!) In the past it
was so much easier to acquire two wives, although it was more often serial
rather than concurrent. If a man from Virginia went to California to look
for gold, he might decide after a couple of fruitless years that he didn't
want to go home and face the ridicule of his family and neighbors. He
might decide to just settle down in California, perhaps open a store or
take up farming and marry a girl he met there. Since he may have stopped
writing to his family in Virginia months ago, he would hardly feel it
was necessary to go to all the trouble and agony of trying to get a divorce.
He might even send back an announcement of his death just to close that
chapter of his life.
When a husband disappears, the wife usually goes through the legal process
to have him declared dead after a certain period of time. You might encounter
the family with the husband in one census and in the next find the wife
listed as a widow. This would lead you to believe he died in the meantime
and you would look for cemetery records, obituaries, wills and death records.
If he simply disappeared, you will not find any of these and may need
to explore court records for a legal document declaring him dead. Of course,
he may not really be dead at all.
Many men, especially new immigrants, found it too overwhelming to try
to support a family and just walked off and were never heard from again.
They might even change their names, settle down in a new area and get
married again. This is very difficult to track and document, but one place
where this could come out is in military pension records. If a man was
in the Civil War, his first wife would know he was entitled to a pension
and would apply for one when it became obvious he was never coming back,
and could be presumed dead. If he remarried under another name, he might
feel enough loyalty to his second wife to disclose his military service
and the name under which he enlisted. Once he died and the second wife
applied for her pension, both applications would end up with the same
If you suspect a possible name change, be sure to consult as many legal
or official documents as possible, such as pension papers, wills, naturalization
papers or land deeds. Even if a man changed names he might think he had
to include his "also known as" (AKA) name to be sure the transaction was
valid, fearing the original name might come out at some point and nullify
A woman could create genealogical confusion by not changing her name.
If a woman had a child out of wedlock, she might move to another town,
keep her maiden name but call herself Mrs., claiming she was a widow.
Even if people knew she had never married, a mother would be called Mrs.
as a courtesy because it would be embarrassing to all concerned to suggest
that an unmarried woman had a child.
In African-American research, many people assume that a freed slave would
take the family name of the person who had owned him before emancipation.
In fact, the freed slaves could take any name they liked and many experimented
with several names before settling on one. Siblings might choose different
surnames so it is not obvious to a researcher that they are related. A
parent might have lived on a different plantation and select a different
name from the child. Many chose names of famous people or people they
admired, so the surname may or may not be significant for the researcher.
Sometimes a researcher looking through baptism records will find a couple
who gave the same name to two different children. A look at the burials
usually reveals that the first child with that name died before the second
one was born. In some cases no such death is found. In fact, both children
seem to live, grow up and produce their own records. This can cause the
researcher a bit of confusion and reexamination of the records. For some
reason perhaps a lack of imagination? parents will give
children almost identical names. In one family there was a John and a
Jonathan, and both lived to adulthood. Mary and Maria are also possibilities.
Sometimes, especially in German names, the first name would be the same
for all children of the same sex, but the second name would be different.
A family might consist of Johann Georg, Johann Wilhelm, Johann Josef,
Anna Barbara, Anna Maria and Anna Theresa. Needless to say, the children
usually went by their middle names and the children might be known as
Georg, Johann, Josef, Barbara, Anna and Theresa. In later records, they
might reverse the name since the middle name was the one usually used.
This means you almost have to follow the lives of all the brothers to
be sure who was really Johann. Just to confuse matters, Georg and Josef
might use their official first name, Johann, on a record.
Very often in the past, adoptions were very informally arranged. A woman
might have a child that she really couldn't care for, because of health
or financial reasons, while her sister might have wanted a child but was
unable to have one. It might be agreed between the two families that the
child would be given to the other to raise. No papers were signed or legal
documents filed. Similarly, a foundling might be taken in by a family
and simply raised as their own.
We have all encountered a person being classified as a male in one census
and a female in another. This frequently happens with unusual names, or
names that can be either sex, and usually it is just an error on the part
of the census taker. However, there have been cases where children have
been raised as if they were the opposite sex. Boys were dressed like girls
when they were small and a mother who wanted a girl and was unable to
have any more children might well continue that deception until the child
revolted. Sex change operations were not possible 100 years ago but people
could live as if they were the opposite sex. A woman might be especially
tempted to masquerade as a man if she wished to be a soldier or a cowboy
or follow some equally masculine occupation. Very recently a well-known
band leader died and it was found that he, even though he was married,
was actually a woman and no one knew.
While following a family back through the census you might find a person
who had always been classified as white, listed as mulatto, meaning a
mixture of white and African ancestry. While we know the census taker
often made mistakes, this might mean there is African-American ancestry
in that line. Appearance played a big part in racial designation and when
possible, many people of mixed ancestry would "pass" for white when they
could. The children of Sally Hemings are a good example. (Whether or not
you believe Thomas Jefferson was the father, it is generally accepted
that the father of the Hemings children was white.)
Sally herself was 1/4 black, as her father and maternal grandfather were
both white. Her children were only 1/8 black. They all drifted off, with
or without permission, and settled elsewhere. Eston at first settled in
Ohio and in 1852 moved to Wisconsin where he changed his name from Hemings
to Jefferson and his race to white. Eston's descendants did not even know
of their black ancestry. Beverly (a son) and Harriet apparently disappeared
into white society. Thomas became a minister in the African Methodist
church and Madison stayed in the black community.
Many people, especially in the south, have both white and black ancestry.
Given the conditions and disadvantages under which blacks, even free ones,
had to live, it made sense to be classified as white if at all possible.
It made their lives and the lives of their families much easier.
Facing the Impossible
I would not encourage anyone to look for any of these extreme situations
in his or her own family research, but if the impossible or the improbable
appears, keep an open mind. If you come across one of these situations,
this line may be truncated. Even if you do manage to work around it, it
will take much research and documentation to gather enough evidence to
prove what really happened. However, if you do manage to piece the whole
story together, it will probably be the highlight of your family history!