Sunday, November 4, 2012

Widows in the United States Census

Prior to the 1850 Census, the members of the household were not identified other than the head of the household. The information gathered revealed little about the household other than the total number of members, number of males, number of females and the number of each falling within various age groups.

By 1850, every member of the household was enumerated with the head of the household recorded first. However, the relationship of the other members of the household to the head was not recorded. The marital status of individuals also was not recorded except in the case of newlyweds. A column was added in which members of the household who were married within the year were identified. In the 1870 census, the enumerator was asked to record the month in which the couple were married within the year.

Typically, the members of a household are recorded in this census in the following order:
  • Head (usually male)
  • Spouse (usually female)
  • Children
  • Parents of head or spouse
  • Siblings of head or spouse
  • Other relatives
  • Others including servants, boarders, houseguests, etc.
A female who is the head of household could be unmarried, married with an absent husband, divorced or widowed. Unless you have other information, you cannot be certain of her marital status.

Even the marital status of the male head of household cannot be stated with certainty. I have come across households composed of an unmarried man, his widowed sister and her children. In other instances, the household was comprised of a bachelor brother and one or more spinster sisters.

It was not until the 1880 Census that a column was added titled, "Civil Condition." Under this category are three columns in which the enumerator marked the appropriate column. The columns are labeled Single, Married, and Widowed/Divorced. The column in which the enumerator identified couples who were married during the census year was retained in this census but omitted in the subsequent censuses.

Of the thousands of 1880 Census images I viewed, I saw very, very few images in which an individual on the page was recorded as divorced. My initial assumption was that divorce was probably not very common at that time. However, after coming across a distant relative in this census whose marital status was widowed and later finding her deceased husband alive and well but divorced, I decided look further into divorce in the United States during this time.

The Europeans brought the concept of divorce to North America when they first settled here. However, a divorce was very difficult to obtain. A person seeking a divorce had to provide the court with a very compelling reason as to why a divorce should be granted. The grounds on which a divorce was granted include desertion, regular inebriation, impotence, adultery and extreme cruelty.

Although I saw a tiny number of divorced persons in the 1880 Census, I began to see more occurrences of these situations in the 1900 Census as well as the 1910 Census. Occasionally I found a widow but found the dead husband living in the same city or town. In one case, a couple was enumerated in 1900 in separate households. The female was widowed while the male was roomer who was married. A decade later she was married to a different man and her former husband now was recorded as divorced.

However, starting with the 1920 Census, I noticed a decline in these cases. Suddenly, I was seeing images with more divorced females than I had in the prior censuses. One of the ladies who was a widow in 1910 was a divorcée in 1920. But I should not be surprised as this was the beginning of the "Roaring Twenties" and the "flapper era."

There was a stigma prior to 1920 of being a divorced woman regardless of the cause of the divorce. So, when you look at census images, be very leery about your female ancestor that claims to be a widow. Don't give her husband up for dead. He may just be lurking in another Enumeration District.

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