We often think of our ancestors as being straight-laced, prim and proper. Such images can close a mind to the possibility our ancestors didn't always follow the rules.
This is especially true when it came to ending unwanted marriages at a time when that was not socially acceptable. After a divorce it was common for the parties to act as if they had never been married. I've met many an amazed researcher enthralled with the discovery of great grandpa's other family.
Some researchers who think they've found their ancestor sometimes discard him when the record shows a wife with the wrong name. They have the name of a known wife and know when she died. When the man creates a record with a woman of a different name, when his wife was still alive, well, it must be the wrong man. Right?
Wrong. Here's where closed minds are a real deterrent to thorough genealogical research.
In "The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy," Johni Cerny and Sandra Luebking wisely point out that "the frontier was often the most practical resolution to a bad marriage." It was easier to "ride into the sunset" than to get a divorce.
Doubtless that happened in many families. It's exactly what happened in one of my favorite research adventures. Here's the story:
In 1818 young Betsey Yarbrough married William Wilson at her father's home in Fayetteville, N.C. After they'd been married a little over a year William disappeared. Betsey waited around, ever the faithful wife, for eight years.
She must have figured William was never coming back - for all she knew he was dead. So she married Thomas Eubanks in 1828 and had three children with him. Thomas had three children from his earlier marriage, which had ended at the death of his first wife.
Betsey and Thomas stayed together until he died. So the issue of whether or not Betsey and William had ever divorced never became an issue until the 1866 death of Ambrose Eubanks, one of Thomas' sons by his first marriage.
Ambrose's two full-blooded brothers wanted to inherit his entire estate. The only way they could do this was to somehow rid themselves of the three half-siblings from Thomas' marriage to Betsey.
They knew that if Thomas and Betsey's marriage was not legal (because she had not divorced William), then their three children were illegitimate. Illegitimate children at that time could not inherit from their father's legitimate children.
The evidence presented in court left little doubt that William Wilson and Betsey never divorced. The Eubanks brothers located William, and he testified that he had left Betsey and never divorced her. Betsey also testified that they were never divorced - she thought William was dead.
The court was furious with the older Eubanks siblings, calling their actions a "disreputable attempt to bastardize the younger [half siblings]." The court said that since no one had tried to void Thomas and Betsey's marriage while they both were alive and cohabitating as man and wife, then it would not declare the children of that marriage as illegitimate.
To us descendants it doesn't really matter what the court said or how they decided the case - we just value the testimony that shows personal details of Betsey Yarbrough William Eubanks that probably aren't recorded anywhere else.
So, researchers, keep your minds open to all possibility - your ancestors weren't saints.
Next week we'll look at a divorce the Florida legislature should never have granted.