Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 5/5/2004

Pick a Spouse, Any Spouse

Are your ancestors' marriages causing you problems? Is your lack of knowledge of your ancestor's marriages creating a brick wall? When family members have only one relationship that produces children and that relationship is documented by a marriage, the work is easy. Of course that is not always the case. This week we look at some general suggestions for tracking your ancestors through their multiple marriages.

Who Got Re-Hitched?
The remarriage of the mother after the death of the father is among most problematic of situations for the genealogist. The trouble stems from the last name change of the mother and the potential last name change of her children. Many stepchildren were never adopted, yet many times they are listed with their stepfather's last name in official records. If a family “disappears,” is it because the father died and the mother remarried?

The remarriage of the father does not present quite the same problem. The main difficulty may be in determining which wife is the mother of which children.

Clues to Remarriage
Some life situations and records may suggest that an ancestor was married more than once.

Think about your ancestor's life. Determine as best you can the age of all of your ancestor's children at the time the spouse died. Would the ancestor have had small children in the house after the death of the spouse? How old was the surviving spouse? Was the surviving spouse in a financial situation that would allow him or her to remain single, or would marriage have been an economic necessity? Are there grown children or other family members with whom the surviving parent could reside? The answers do not guarantee a subsequent marriage by the surviving parent, but may warrant a search of marriage records. Age, economic status, and ages of surviving children all play a role in whether or not a surviving spouse decides to remarry. Creating a chronology with the known information on your ancestor and their children is also an excellent idea.

Another clue to additional marriages are multiple maiden names for an ancestor. Multiple maiden names can arise for several reasons, most generally:

--- Multiple marriages for the ancestor
--- Multiple marriages for the ancestor's parents
--- Confusion on the part of the person providing the information

Further research is warranted when last names are inconsistent.

Finally, are the names really different? Last names that appear to be different may actually be variants of the same name. One of my ancestors has a maiden name that appears as Bieger, Beger, Berger, Bigger, Biger, Picker, Pickar, Pickert, and Bickert. These are spelling and phonetic variations. The same is true for first names. Sarah and Sally may very well be the same person. Make certain that what you think are two separate people are not the same person listed once with their “real” name and once with their nickname.

Sources That May Help
There are a variety of records that may indicate an ancestor married more than once. Some of these records will not specifically reveal a marriage, but may suggest that your ancestor had a subsequent spouse. These records contain many clues, but today we are focusing on becoming aware of multiple marriages for various family members.

Guardianships. Guardianship records are usually created when a man with real or significant personal property dies with minor children. A guardian is appointed to oversee the property until the minor heirs reach the age of majority. Guardianship records will indicate which parents are deceased and may or may not mention the mother, even if she survives. If the family had no property, there likely will be no guardianship records for any minor children. In some areas there may be records of apprenticeship, which may mention that a child has a deceased father.

Probate Records. Records of the settlement of an estate may mention the subsequent surname of a surviving widow. Wills may not include all children, either because some had already received their share or because they had a falling out with the writer of the will. Any court notices sent to heirs should list all children, even if all children were not listed in the will. If a list of heirs fails to include individuals you believe to be children of the will's writer, further research may have to be done. Some individuals you thought were children may not be children after all.

Marriage Records. Does the marriage record of your ancestor indicate the bride was a “Mrs.?” This is an obvious clue. It may be worth your while to look for both the husband and wife in later marriage records even if you don't think they were remarried.

Cemetery Records and Tombstones. These records may provide death dates not located in other records which may suggest an ancestor was a widow or widower for an extended period of time (and more likely to remarry). Adjacent burials may indicate an ancestor was married more than once. Look at the names on stones of those buried near your ancestor.

Death Records. An obvious source of death date information, look also for the name of the surviving spouse. Is it the same as the name you have?

Land Records. If your ancestral family owned land, locate all records where the land is acquired and all records where the land is transferred from family ownership. Records of transfer from family ownership are more likely to provide spousal clues. When the husband sells property, is it the same wife listed as giving up her rights of dower?

Court Records. Was your ancestor divorced? Divorce in the nineteenth century was not as common as it is today, but it was not unheard of either. Court records involving real property or inheritance are more likely to reveal spousal information than are other cases.

Virtually any record could reveal that your ancestor was married more than once. The records we've discussed here are some of the ones that are more likely to provide this information. Remember to leave no stone unturned!

General Advice
Organize and analyze information as you find it. Do not “create” spouses or subsequent marriages to make information “fit.” Document as you go and make certain to clearly and as concretely as possible connect individuals with the records that have been located. Just because your ancestors confused you does not mean that your research on them has to confuse others.

If the father remarries, surname changes are not usually a problem. If the mother remarries, a child may be listed with the surname of the birth father or the stepfather, whether or not there was an adoption. In some cases, there may be multiple stepfathers creating additional confusion.

A female with multiple maiden names may have been married more than once, or her mother may have been married more than once or had more than one relationship (not necessarily marriages), which produced children. Variant last names for male ancestors usually indicates that his father had multiple relationships, which may or may not have actually been marriages.

Of course, these are general tendencies, not hard and fast guarantees. There are no “always” rules in genealogy!

Next week we look at some situations where multiple marriages built some genealogical brick walls.

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 h e regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004,



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