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How Genealogy Debunks Myths About History, #2: Nuclear Families

Many people seem to think that single parent families and blended families were a rarity until the increased prevalence of divorce in recent decades. Genealogy tells a different story. In researching my ancestors and those of other people, I have indeed found very few that were divorced, but I have also found very few children who grew up with both parents, and many who grew up in blended families.

People tended to die much younger in previous eras, and the surviving spouse often remarried. Many women died in childbirth or as a result of complications from it. The combination of fewer safety protections and lesser medical knowledge meant people were much more likely to die from accidents and common diseases, even well into the twentieth century. People do tend to be aware of these facts, but they often don’t extrapolate from that knowledge what it meant for family structure.

When I am researching a family, the first thing I do is try to find it on as many censuses as possible. Because misspellings and inaccurate birth data are rampant on census pages, matching a family on, for example, the 1900 census with the same family on the 1910 census can be a challenge, but it can usually be done. It is easier with larger families, because even if a few members are not on both lists, you can still be fairly certain it’s the same family.

It is not at all unusual to find a family headed by a widow or widower, even in the last publicly available US census, from 1940. It is also common to find families in which one or both parents have married at least twice, often having children with each spouse. This means many children grew up with stepsiblings and half-siblings. Many had periods in their lives when they had just one parent, and many grew up with stepparents, some with a succession of them.

I have also frequently found families not living together. A couple may be listed as married but living in separate houses. Sometimes all the children are with one parent, and sometimes some are with each. Sometimes some or all of the children in a family are living with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Poorer families are often split up in multiple houses, with even young children working as domestic servants or farm hands.

From what I have seen in genealogical records, there have always been many single parent and blended families. I have not come across any era in which the vast majority of families consisted of a couple who had only ever been married to each other and just that couple’s children. It might have been the ideal, but it does not seem to have been the reality.

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How Genealogy Debunks Myths About History, #1: Marriage

My explorations in genealogy have led me to question a lot of conventional wisdom about the lives of people in earlier eras. One of the assumptions I had was that until fairly recently, most people married before age 30. There might have been the occasional confirmed bachelor or spinster aunt, but they were unusual. In the course of my research, however, I have come across many, many people who did not fit that mold.

Among the siblings of my great grandparents, for example, there are very few who fit the stereotype. Eliminating all who died as children or became priests or nuns, and all those for whom I am not certain whether or not they ever married, there are 22, 14 women and 8 men. All were born between 1865 and 1900, most in the 1870s or 1880s. Of those 22, only 5, 3 women and 2 men, married before the age of 30. 3 women and 3 men married for the first time in their thirties. One woman and one man did so in their forties, and one woman at the age of 51. 6 women and 2 men never married. Just 23% of my admittedly small and not particularly scientific sample married before age 30, 21% of the women and 25% of the men. 41% married later (36% of the women and 50% of the men) and 36% never married (43% of the women and 25% of the men).

Even if my ancestors’ siblings skewed my sample by being particularly slow to marry, those are some pretty surprising numbers, and in my experience these proportions are not particularly odd. In researching many families, not just my own, it seems nearly every set of siblings has at least one who never married, and it is not all that rare to come across someone who married for the first time in their 30s or 40s, women as well as men.

Genealogical research also contests the stereotype of the sad spinster, wasting away wishing for a husband. For example, one of the never married women in my sample, my great grandfather’s sister Augusta, played a major role in their father’s publishing business. She also lived well into her eighties, outliving all her siblings, and worked in the business at least into her sixties. Augusta’s first cousin Louise also never married, and, like many never married women I have come across in the course of my research, she traveled a great deal. She crossed the Atlantic so many times that I stopped documenting her trips.

I would be interested to know if other genealogy buffs have noticed similar patterns, or if they even started with the same assumptions. When we see statistics about marriage, they usually focus on averages. We tend to forget, or at least it seems I do, that average does not necessarily mean typical, and that most people are not average. One of the things I love about genealogy is that it forces you to look at individual lives instead of aggregates. It turns out the past had much more variety and nuance than statistics and stereotypes may lead us to believe.

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