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Is it Ever as Simple as it Looks?

By Daniel Hubbard | January 22, 2012

Human beings are complicated. We all know that. We’re well aware of the complexity of our own lives, of our own times. We often think that life was simple and uncomplicated before. Part of it is that we were all children once and after we’ve blocked out the hard parts of growing up we’re left with memories of what we think of as a simpler time. Really it was just a simpler phase of our own lives. We may see life as having been simpler because some things that add to the complexities of our lives did not exist. We easily lose track of all the things that made people’s lives complicated that we no longer need to even think about.


I’ve been working on a marriage lately.  It is fairly cut and dried bit of genealogy. I’ve found the county record and a statement made by the groom in his pension file and they agree in their details. The births of the children start more than nine months after the marriage date. It is all very clear.

Except that it isn’t. There is further evidence and more to consider. When these two met they were both half a continent from where they were born and raised. They grew up in separate small worlds hundreds of miles apart. Any evidence for their movements is also evidence for when they might have met. His discharge from the army puts a limit on when he could have moved west. It was summer of 1866.

A few surviving letters give hints about when he actually reached the town on the frontier where they would meet. He arrived first. It was spring, 1867.

She was a god-fearing soldiers wife. She was a war widow. She remained on her farm for a while. I have her shaky, emotional signature on her application for a widow’s pension. She applied while still living on the farm. Later, I have some records of land sales. They are a sign that she may have been preparing to leave. It was late winter of 1868.

I found a diary kept by a man whose relationship to all this is less than tenuous. He was the uncle of the wife of a brother of the future bride. He did not even live particularly close to his niece. Not the first person to look to for clues and yet he supplied them. In his daily writings, he described a visit from his niece and her husband. A week later they were on their way to a nearby town to board the train but it wasn’t the train for home. They were heading west. It was early spring, 1868.

A few months later a letter from the future groom’s brother proves that when he visited his brother in the west, he met the niece, her husband and, most importantly, he met that future bride. He called her by the name she had as a widow. Nevertheless, the bride and the groom had met. It was the summer of 1868.

It was still two years before the wedding.

The Plot Thickens

A group of letters to the groom make odd references. One mentioned sons of the future groom, sons he didn’t have. It asked when he would bring his wife “back home” for a visit. Another letter turns down an offer to visit the west. Our groom had invited a friend to stay with him but the friend declined because he was afraid of being in the way when our groom decided to “bring home your wife.” Both arrived a month before there is reason to believe that he and his future bride had even had a chance to meet. It was still the winter of 1868.

She received some unusual letters as well. One referred to her by the married name she wasn’t supposed to have for another year. One asked her about a baby by surname. It was her future husband’s surname. It wasn’t supposed to be her name just yet but it seemed to be her baby’s name. It was summer of 1869.

A last group of letters make it clear that other people had very different ideas. When the bride’s stepmother learned that her stepson and his wife had left the west, she feared for her stepdaughter’s safety because her stepdaughter was now alone. It was one month before the official marriage date. Even when they should have known of an approaching wedding, her father and stepmother had no idea. A sister-in-law wrote a few months after the official marriage date to say that she was so glad to hear “that now you have  a man.” It was summer, 1870.


It isn’t possible to know exactly what happened but it is possible to have a few thoughts on the matter. Those that wrote to our bride before she is supposed to have been married and thought that she was married belonged to the family of her sister, her only sister. That only sister had also lost her husband to war. She was also a widow with children to feed and a life to put back together. If anyone could understand something a bit out of the ordinary, it would have been her sister. If there was anyone she could have confided in, it would have been her sister. Her brother must have known as well. He and his wife seemed to have served as escorts. They must have known why. No other family members seemed to have had any idea of anything unusual and perhaps that is exactly how it was supposed to be.

Then there is the puzzle of why a friend and some relatives of our groom seemed to know that he was married not just before he was married but before he apparently could have met his wife. The puzzle includes why his friend made it clear that his wife was not yet living with him but would be soon.

I suppose there could be a few hypotheses to explain this. Perhaps the wife referred to by his friends and family was actually a different woman. I doubt it. There was barely time between his discharge and when he clearly knew his future bride for him to have married another woman and for her to die. It would have to have been another widow with sons and without daughters. She and her children would have had to vanish without a trace.

I suspect that the biggest clue comes from the friend who wrote about our groom’s wife moving in. I suspect that he and his future wife had met—by letter. The East was short of men. The war had left behind many widows. The frontier had a shortage of women. Women in the East and men in the West were known to have run personal ads in each others newspapers in hopes of finding someone. I’ve looked for such an ad that fits this couple and have not found it, so maybe there is another answer. Nevertheless, that letter from the friend that knew of a wife who had seemingly not yet arrived doesn’t leave room for much else. I’ll probably never know. I already know more than I have any reason to expect to know.

The Point

Though I love the story, the mystery and the signs of human complexity, they aren’t the only point. If all I’d seen were the marriage record and the pension information, I’d have no reason to think there was anything out of the ordinary. Checking the births of the children didn’t turn up anything unusual either. Normally there is not much more that one can do. I’d found all that one can expect to know. Add a discharge date, a diary entry and a few letters and the story becomes quite different. Whether they were secretly married or simply considered themselves to be married, whatever it was that took place, it took place two years before the official record says it did. The evidence that we would consider sufficient was supplemented by a few accidents of timing and preservation to tell a very different story.

I have to wonder how often, when a few documents present us with clear proof of an event, would things be far less clear, less obvious and more complex if more was preserved. That wonder keeps me looking. Real people might prove to have been far less simple than we think. The question, of course, is how often?

Perhaps one can tell that one doesn’t have enough evidence when one doesn’t yet know enough to be a bit perplexed.


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Topics: Genealogy, Records | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “Is it Ever as Simple as it Looks?”

  1. Sheryl Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Great example of why we should continue looking for evidence!

  2. Barbara Says:
    February 22nd, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you for this post and for your speculations on what might have occurred. I have a similar marriage that didn’t make sense between two immigrants, both from Germany — one from the north, one from the south, one Lutheran, one Catholic, both parents of small children, one divorced, the other said to be widowed. And I had two marriage dates, no immigration date for the wife, and a whole lot of questions about how they met and when they married — or when they considered themselves married.

    Like you, I have hypotheses, and I will probably never know. But I know far more now because of records left by her first cousin of her own second marriage which should have said nothing at all about theirs, but in fact was the clue that unlocked much of the mystery.

    Isn’t it fun?