7 Things That Shocked Me About Family Tree Research

If you assume, as I did, that people of 100 years ago lived much the same lives as you and I do today, you’re in for a big surprise.

Age at Marriage. Even though the marriage registration gave the bride’s age as 18 years and the groom’s as 22, their birth registrations told a different story. In September 1904, when my husband’s grandparents married, Frances was just 14 years old and Will was 25. A year later, Frances was a 15 year old new mother to a son. When I think about my own teen daughter who can’t keep her room tidy or put away her dishes and I am amazed at what responsibilities befell young women of the past. I suppose she had no choice really. Life expectancy for a Canadian in 1900 was 50 years so life often began and ended earlier than it does today.

I was struck by the age difference between the bride and groom as well. Few modern parents would want their young teen daughter to marry a man in his mid 20s, but one hundred and more years ago this was quite common.  Frances’ mother had also been a 14 year old bride. Frances’ father had been 28 years old at that time, twice the bride’s age and closer in age to that of her father, in fact.  It took a young man quite a few years to build a life for himself, with a livelihood and a home, perhaps livestock and property. Before this, he had nothing to offer a wife. In order to have a large family, as was common in those days, (Frances was one of 13 children), the groom often took a much younger bride with many childbearing years ahead of her. This sounds very strange by today’s standards, but for most people life was very no frills – they were born, married, raised a family, worked hard and died.

Close Kinship. My husband says his family tree is just a stump – it has no branches! Actually, parts of my tree are no different. There were no dating websites, no lonely hearts clubs, in fact few roads and no access to transportation, little time free from work and few social interactions other than church in the years when our great grandparents were young. The choices for a mate were those nearby which often included that small church circle, young folk from neighbouring farms and your own cousins, but few others.

In my own research, I have found a number of cousin-cousin marriages in rural Canada, quite a few more in pockets of the Scottish highlands where everyone is related in some way, and on the Herbidean  island of Mull where everyone is related two and three times!

Shotgun Weddings. Oh, they had to get married. I have heard that whispered plenty of times in my youth. How scandalous, the bride was already pregnant so a quick wedding was arranged and many 9 pound premature babies were born! In my research, I was surprised to find that most brides were expecting on their wedding day. What I didn’t realize, particularly in farming families of 100+ years ago, was that a pregnant bride was a good thing. It proved that the young lady was fertile and would likely give her husband many children and so he married her straight away to give his child a legitimate birth.

A Crime Worse Than Murder. An illegitimate birth was a circumstance to be avoided at all costs. To give birth without having a husband was a terrible sin, and a permanent stain upon bother the mother and child. The woman now carried the stigma of being of loose morals and the child was considered a second class citizen, having no known father. Most of the so called illegitimate births I have come across personally occurred where the mother was a domestic servant. She was away from home and either carried on an affair with a fellow servant who could not support her or more likely her employer (or his son) who would not marry her due to class divides (or he already had a wife).

Divorce – No Thanks. Divorce simply didn’t exist. In Canada and the UK, divorce was not allowed by any church and furthermore required an appeal to Parliament which was a costly endeavour. Only the very wealthy divorced up until mid 20th century. Of all the thousands of relatives I have researched, I have only ever come across one legal divorce. Many marriages appeared on paper to last for decades, but sometimes couples quietly separated and led a new life with a new partner.

Fostering. I can’t imagine handing any of my children to a relative to be raised, but then again I didn’t have 12 of them. I didn’t understand why I often found records of children living with grandparents or aunts and uncles instead their own parents. My late mother-in-law told me that her brother’s eldest daughter went to stay with her grandparents when a new baby arrived in her family. This occurred on Prince Edward Island in the 1920s and was meant to be a temporary arrangement. In the end, the little girl liked living with Grandma and Grandpa so much that they just let her stay.

Disease.  I have a gold watch that was left to me by my great aunt. It was presented to her for 10 years service as a nurse at a children’s fever hospital during the years around World War One. Thankfully, with the advance of modern medicine, these hospitals don’t exist anymore. Modern day parents would be heartbroken to read some of the old death registrations of their long ago relatives. It was not uncommon to lose 2 or 3 small children in the span of a week to diphtheria or whooping cough.

Mothers died in childbirth at an alarming rate. Many infants didn’t see their first birthday. Fathers died young from minor work related injuries with infections, kidney disease or pneumonia leaving the family in poverty. Poor water supply killed many. Cancer was always a death sentence. I am extremely thankful to be living in the 21st century!

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2 Responses

  1. Great little reminder, Mary.
    Another difference that’s been brought home to me lately is the difference the toll of war takes now. I’ve been reading a bit about WWI and its horrific casualties. Contrasted with our forces losses in the most recent wars they’ve seen active duty, and the public’s reaction in both cases – well, the difference is striking. Also, the burden of care rested on the immediate family – no psychologists, health care plans or long term care for any but those who could afford the high cost of it. I think, with all their trials and tribulations, and the way life forced them to deal with same, our ancestors were stronger and more dependent on the wider family circle than we tend to be now.

    • Mary Harris says:

      How right you are!! I had the opportunity to go to the Somme region in norther France in 2012 and retrace the footsteps of my great uncle, James Mathison Fletcher, who was KIA in November, 1916 there. Two monuments that struck me were the Thiepval Memorial and the Menin Gate. Both monuments are covered in the names of the men that went to fight and simply vanished off the face of the earth and have no known grave – 127,000 combined and these are only the soldiers who were at the Somme or Ypres during a certain time period. Unfathomable.

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