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This week’s lesson comes from the Freedman’s Bank Records that I have been recently exploring.

I once heard a lecturer say that up to 60% of the time, people are researching the wrong woman as mother of the children. This example shows the need to prove the father’s relationship to a child separately from the mother’s relationship to the child. What does that mean? Here’s the Freedman’s Bank card for “London Mathies”:

London Bankcard

London Bankcard

London’s bank card dated 8 October 1867 provides the surprise notation that his wife “Martha died in Memphis on Vance St. July 2/67.” Of course, most cards don’t typically include dates of death, so this is a lucky find. Under the section for children it says “Willy Franklin 1 yr 2 mos” which could be interpreted as one or two children until we compare it with his 1870 census household as London “Matthews”:

Matthews

Matthews

In this document, his wife’s name is Amanda. With one year old son “Jackson” in the household, we can probably safely conclude that London has remarried and had another son. What these records *together* show is that Amanda is not the mother of the first son “William” or as the bank card calls him, “Willy Franklin.” William’s mother was probably Martha. If we viewed this census record in isolation, we might incorrectly assume this was a man and a wife and their two children. Of course we’ll try to find London’s marriage records to confirm our hypothesis. We could also try to find church or burial records that may confirm the death of his wife and perhaps births or baptisms of the children.

We can’t assume that the wife in any household is the mother of all of the children in the household. We have to prove that relationship separately.

Here’s another one (1910):

 

Campbell

Campbell

If you know how to properly pull every clue from census records, you’ll notice that the little “M2” means that John Campbell has been married more than once, while this is his wife Harriet’s first marriage (“M1″). You’ll also see that Harriet has birthed 2 children, and 2 are living. This implies that the last two children are not Harriet’s children (Thanks for the correction, Rolanda!)

Same thing with this third example (1910):

Burrow

Burrow

Samuel’s marriage to Carrie has not produced any children yet; it’s her first marriage and his 2nd (or more) marriage. The two children in the household are probably his from a previous marriage.

Notice that if it’s the husband’s subsequent marriage, the children will not be noted as “step” children because the census records only state the relationship to the head of the household. If it’s the husband’s first marriage and the wife’s subsequent marriage, and she brings children, the children should be properly noted as “step” children, as they are here:

Perry Davis

Perry Davis

Here’s the rub: only the 1910 census requires an “M1” or an “M2” designator for number of marriages. And, the “M2” designator means “married more than once.” It could be a 2nd marriage or a 4th marriage, and it should still say “M2”.

Additionally:

–the 1900 census provides the number of years married and the number of children born and living for the women. It does not provide the number of marriages as shown in this example.

–the 1930 census provides age at first marriage. Doesn’t necessarily mean the person was married at that time to the current spouse.

–the 1900-1940 censuses all require a “D” to be written for divorced; if you see that, be sure to find the divorce record.

As you can see, all of these differences in what information each census provides is critical to understanding and interpreting the document correctly. Incorrectly interpreting the census can lead you astray in your research for years.

It goes without saying that information in census records have high degrees of error rates and should be approached with caution. The censustaker may not have recorded the information correctly or the family member may not have accurately reported their marital status. I have several examples of women marked “widowed” whose husbands were in fact not dead.

It goes without saying that information in the census records should be correlated with other records that illuminate a family.

It goes without saying that people can and did have children before and outside of marriages.

So how can you prove the relationship to the wife as mother of the children? Here are a few ways:

  • Sometimes simple age deductions can rule out the current wife as mother of the children. (ie, most women aren’t birthing children at age 13).
  • If the husband dies first, and the widowed wife now heads the census household, the stated relationship of any children in the household will be to her.
  • Marriage and death certificates of the children can name parents.
  • Estate or probate records after the father’s death may illuminate children and wives.
  • Bible records, church records, military pensions, obituaries and land records are examples of other types of records that may be used to prove a woman’s relationship to household children.

So go back and pull out some of your census records. Ask yourself, for each family unit: Is the Wife Really the Mother of all of the Children? The answer may surprise you.

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