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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 11/24/2003

An 1880 Female Head of Household

At first glance the 1880 census entry for my third-great-grandmother looks unusual. The wife is enumerated first in the household and all relationships are given with respect to her. Not unusual for widows to be enumerated as household heads. The only difference is that her husband is enumerated as the last resident in the household!

In summary the entry is as follows:

Anna Fecht, aged 65, [head], married
John Habben, aged 20, son, single
George Habben, aged 18, son, single
Anna Habben, aged 13, daughter, single
Mattie Halts, aged 10, granddaughter, single
George Fecht, aged 12, stepson, single
Henry Fecht, aged 65, no relationship stated, married

The online 1880 census transcription (obtainable via FamilySearch or provided this summary. The actual census itself agreed.

[Source: 1880 U.S. Federal Census; Census Place: Prairie, Hancock, Illinois; Roll: T9_211; Family History Film: 1254211; Page: 235D; Enumeration District: 77; Image: 0472. Readers can view the actual family's entry here.

Is It Really Unusual?
In a word, yes. I've seen numerous married couples enumerated in census records and cannot ever remember seeing the wife listed as the head of the household when the husband was also included within the same household (If you know of other situations like this, I'd love to hear about it.) This is very atypical.

And the Genealogist Asks Why?
Good genealogists are like small children in the sense that they are always asking, "why?" The unusual nature of the family's entry could be a mistake. The genealogist should be careful of reading too much into just one entry. The oddness of this entry indicates there might be more here than meets the eye. And even if I'm wrong and the entry is a fluke, my search for more information on this family and their background may benefit my research in ways totally unrelated to the census enumeration. And that is always a good thing.

Culture and money impact families in many ways. The difficulty is in learning more about a family's cultural background and financial situation. Even if we locate a great deal of information, certain inferences will be necessary (unless the family left behind extensive diaries, which did not happen in this case). We will look at the family's economic situation first. They say, after all, that money talks.

The Background
Antje (the Anna listed as the 1880 head of household) was married first to Mimke Habben in Germany in the 1840s. County courthouse records (property, tax, court, and estate records) provide details about the Habbens' life in the states. Mimke bought a farm promptly after the family's immigration and paid off the mortgage within a few years. He died in February of 1877 and that August, Antje married Hinrich Fecht, a widower from the same village in Germany. After Mimke's death, Antje was the owner of approximately 200 acres of prime Illinois farmland. Family legend has it that Hinrich Fecht was not well off financially; searches of land and property tax records did not reveal any real property owned by Hinrich, backing up the family story. Testimony in an unrelated court case indicates that son Johann worked the Habben farm under the "direction of his mother." This reference included a time span after the mother had married Hinrich Fecht.

The Ethnic Background
In most areas during this time period, a subsequent husband would have exercised significant control over any real property his wife brought to the marriage. Local culture and the law typically supported this practice. The difference in this case is that the Fechts and the Habbens were members of an ethnic group that viewed land ownership somewhat differently than their non-immigrant neighbors. And immigrants sometimes act in accord with their homeland culture instead of the culture of their new surroundings. Two studies were located that briefly discuss the farming and inheritance practices of the Ostfriesens.

Faye E. Corner's A Study of the Descendants of an East Frisian Group, and Sonya Salamon's Prairie Patrimony both indicate that the Ostfriesen immigrant view of real property was that any property brought to a marriage by a woman was still "hers." Salamon states: "[Ostfriesen] women keep land inherited in their own names. One husband who forced his wife to sign over her land [to him] was still critically judged … even years later." (page 125) Property that a woman obtained from "her family" was typically considered "hers" and was not under the total control of her husband.

Getting back to the Census
Does this completely explain why Antje is listed as the head of the household in 1880? I'm not certain, but I do know that I have learned something in trying to figure out this census entry. By searching all local extant records and learning about the ethnic group from which the family came, I know more about them than the census entry indicates by itself. And it might help me as I research this family further.

Salamon, Sonya. Prairie Patrimony. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1992.

Corner, Faye E., A Non-mobile, Cooperative Type of Community: A Study of the Descendants of an East Frisian Group, University of Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, Vol. XVI, No. 4, December 1928, pages 15-80.

Learning More about Your Own Ethnic Group
Your immigrant ancestor likely was culturally different from his neighbors. Even American natives who migrated several hundred miles from their point of origin might have been culturally different from their neighbors in their adopted area of residence. Learning more about these ancestors' cultural practices and beliefs at the best may cause you to overcome stumbling blocks and at the very least may provide insight into your ancestor's life. There are several ways one can start learning more about your ancestor's culture and beliefs.

I started Googling. Ostfriesens are not the only group to have had emigration and cultural studies published. Family historians with immigrants from virtually anywhere are likely to find something (either a set of links or a bibliography) that can help them with people from other areas. I did a few cursory Google searches for other areas of Europe where I have immigrating ancestors. While this will limit your results to online sources, it can be a good place to begin. Some initial searches I conducted at were for the following search terms:

Irish immigration bibliography
women immigrant history

There were numerous references located. I tended to favor ones appearing in a college or university bibliography, but excellent references can easily be found outside of academic institutions. A few sample ones follow:

Irish Centre for Migration Studies

German Immigrants in the United States: 1848 to present

Women Immigrants Bibliography

Various Regions

Other Ideas for Locating Material
Consider posting a question to the appropriate regional mailing list at RootsWeb. Other list members may have suggestions of reading material discussing the cultural practices of the region. Visiting the links on Cyndi's List for the appropriate geographical area may provide a link to further reading material.

Why is Antje listed as the head of household? There is no way to be one hundred percent certain, but my attempts to learn caused me to know more about the family than I expected. In actuality I had double motivation to learn about Antje and both of her husbands, as I descend from both of them. We'll leave that topic for another column.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2003, All rights reserved.
Used by the author on his website with permission.

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