The Second (or Third or...) Wife

Did your ancestor marry more than once?
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Childbirth, typhoid, and a host of other medical afflictions often mean the early death of women in prior centuries. Men, facing raising a family on their own, often remarried quickly. This can often make it difficult when researching our family tree to determine if a man had only one, or more than one, wife during his lifetime—or even which wife was our ancestor.

One of my favorite female ancestors, Henrietta Meares, left little behind to mark her time on this earth.

She was the second of three women who married Mack Crisp of Edgecombe County, North Carolina (no polygamy involved!). Henrietta died of typhoid fever at the tender age of 24, along with a new infant child, only a few short years after her marriage to Mack. She left behind two children, born before vital records were enacted in North Carolina, along with several step-children from Mack's previous marriage. She wasn't really married long enough to end up mentioned in land and court records. Her tombstone only reads "Henrietta, wife of M. M. Crisp."

Despite few records, Henrietta was easy to identify as a second wife. I was lucky in that regard. I had her first name (although not her maiden name) from my great grandmother (her daughter). She married in 1897 and the county has a record of that marriage. She died in 1901 so she appears with her husband, daughter, and step-children in the 1900 U.S. federal census.

She is buried in the Crisp family cemetery among other Crisp family members, although her husband is buried elsewhere—and her tombstone provides her dates of birth and death, although not her maiden name.

Whenever you uncover a wife's name in your research, it is prudent to question whether she was the only wife—not all are as easy to identify and document as Henrietta.

The wife that you have discovered may or may not be the mother of any or all of your ancestor's children. This is especially true in the time before census records listed family members by name, or identified family relationships.

Census records, especially, are full of clues to a potential second (or third) marriage:

  • Often a different given name for a wife on census and other records can clue us in to a change in marital relations, but it could also be the same woman going by a middle name or nickname. Don't rush to judgement! It is also possible that a man married more than one wife with the same given name (such as Mary or Elizabeth), so we also have to be careful not to fall into "the name's the same" trap of assuming there is only one wife.
  • Look for children with different last names living in the same census household. If they are identified as sons or daughters, then they likely indicate a previous marriage for either the husband or the wife. Even if the census does not indicate family relationships, they are still worth further research as potential children of a prior marriage. Follow those children through all existing census years for further clues to their family connection.
  • Watch for large differences in approximate birth date between census enumerations. It's not all that uncommon to find someone who aged much less or more than 10 years in the decade between census years due to inconsistencies in reporting and recording, but it may also indicate a new wife, even one with the same name! Follow this up by checking the wife's age in all available census years to look for a pattern.
  • A large gap between the birth of two children, especially if the other children are spaced fairly evenly, may also indicate a second marriage. Such gaps do occur for many other reasons, however. They are common, for example, in the 1860–1865 time frame of the U.S. Civil War. They may also indicate a failed pregnancy or the death of a child, or even multiple children.
  • Many more recent census records record some indication of the approximate marriage date, so children born prior to that date may indicate a previous wife (although it could also just be an illegitimate birth, or an error in recalling or reporting the date of marriage). The 1900 and 1910 U.S. censuses, for example, indicate the number of years a couple was married. Some census records will even indicate a second marriage, with notations such as M1 for first marriage and M2 for second marriage under the "marital status" column.
  • The 1930 U.S. census enumerates the age of each married individual at the time of their first marriage, which can sometimes provide a clue to a previous marriage when that age doesn't match up with the marriage date for the couple.

Beyond census records, a variety of other records can help to further identify the existence of multiple wives. Most are the same resources that we would use to identify a wife's maiden name or parents, such as land records, estate records, military pension records and cemetery records. The key to sorting out multiple wives is to: (1) assume that this might have been the case; and (2) research the wife through every stage of her life (timeline analysis can be helpful here!), including identification of her own ancestral family.