Widows and widowers of yesteryear

I, as a genealogist, co-wrote the biography of my Irish great-great grandmother, Harriet Susannah Ellis. Another book is currently underway – the biography of all four maternal great-great grandmothers (an Out of Obscurity book). An interesting point about these four families, discussed below, has emerged.

My four maternal great-great grandmothers, shown in the photos above, were born between the years of 1844 and 1863 – one in Canada, two in the U.S., one in Ireland. All four spent their final years in North America.

These four women shared a common experience that I didn’t anticipate when I began researching their lives. Three became widows while still raising children, the fourth died while raising children – thus leaving her husband a widower with children at home. In all four instances, therefore, one parent was left to finish raising their children alone. Thus, my four sets of maternal great-great grandparents – who all became widowed in North America – experienced widowhood-with-children between 1888 – 1919.

When I learned of this, I wondered about the demographics and experiences of widowhood-with-children in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

An article in encyclopedia.com identifies that “Before the twentieth century, marriages rarely lasted longer than thirty years and were almost as likely to be dissolved by the death of a wife as of a husband. The European population, however, contained more widows than widowers because the latter were likelier to remarry.” (source: enclopedia.com); I haven’t yet identified whether the same was true in North America where my maternal great-great grandparents experienced widowhood while raising children. However, another article looking at the Northeastern U.S. in the early 1900’s, via University of California Press, identifies that in the U.S. northeast “About one-fifth of ever-married women aged 50 in 1910 were widows.” While being a widow did happen in North America, the fact that widowhood-with-children happened with all four sets of my maternal great-great grandparents was a high ratio (100%). In all four cases, the surviving spouse finished raising their children alone without a second spouse. In at least two cases, older children who were still at home provided employment income for the household while the surviving parent finished raising the youngest children. Only one of my four great-great grandparents – a woman – remarried; she didn’t remarry until long after her children were grown.

Learn more about Kim Burkhardt’s “out of obscurity” genealogy services and Women of Yesteryear books here.


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