Genealogists are naturally inquisitive. Let’s be honest: we are very nosy. We like detail, we love personal stories, we adore family gossip… but above all, we need facts.
As family historians, you have probably asked your parents and even your grandparents how they met (and if you haven’t: WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?). Did they meet at a dance, or through shared friends in common… Are you young enough for your parents to have met online, even?
Whatever the circumstances, knowing how your immediate ancestors met can usually only be answered by asking the main story players themselves, or else someone who knew them well (i.e. your aunt, a close family friend or a cousin). More often than not, such unique (and fleeting) stories leave very little paper trace behind them, if any at all – which begs the question: how can you prove how your ancestors met?
While “chance encounters” were probably even more common before than they are today, there are some ways that can help us figure out how our forefathers met our foremothers (get it?). And proving it can sometimes be substantiated by documentary proof. If not, in the worst case scenario, you can always narrow down the possibilities and make a very educated guess.
If two of your ancestors lived in a small community, be it a small village, or a specific religious group within a larger social group, chances are they would have met either pretty young or else by going about what we might call “daily life”: attending church, going to the market, at a local assembly room, at school… But have you considered the possibility that your ancestors were next-door neighbours? Census returns, tithe maps and other records relating to property can sometimes offer useful clues in this sense. For instance, I have located an entry from the 1841 census which reflects two branches of my English family tree, the Allens and the Davis, and would you believe it that in 1876 their respective grandchildren ended up getting married? Coincidence? Actually, it’s far from a coincidence – it just looks like it in hindsight. To them, it would have been the most natural, casual, ordinary way for two single individuals to meet and decide to tie the knot.
But there are other types of relationships, the sort that you have to dig deeper in order to get a fuller picture. Last spring, at the height of the COVID pandemic, I was stuck at home and decided to delve into my Spanish ancestry. To my delight, I discovered that the man who acted as godfather at my female ancestor’s baptism in 1758 was actually the uncle of her future husband. In other words, my ancestor married her godfather’s nephew – they were therefore “spiritually” related, albeit not by blood. Church records were of course necessary to prove the relationship.
Cousin marriage is another obvious way by which your ancestors may have got together. Marriage between individuals who knew they were related to each other (be it as first, second or third cousins) was massively common until only a few generations ago. While the idea of “incest” (a term I would definitely hesitate to use in this context) makes us uncomfortable, we should accept the fact that such unions were far from being a rarity in the not-so-distant past.
And while on the topic of marriage between family members, have you ever come across an instance of an uncle marrying his niece? Apparently, property and money were often at the root of these unions between close relatives or close acquaintances (after all, if you marry your brother’s wife’s sister, you are not technically marrying a relative). You should therefore consider the possibility of arranged marriages, which again would have been much more common in Western society a few generations ago. Check marriage records and marital dispensations (especially if your ancestors were Catholic) to see if there was a degree of consanguinity and/or affinity between both spouses, and don’t forget to consult wills to see if anybody stood to gain by marrying a rich relative!
Sometimes, “accidents” may have led to two individuals coming together. Consider another of my female Spanish ancestors who was widowed twice; coincidentally – or not – her son from her first marriage would go on to marry her first husband’s niece – again, not a blood relative per se, but there was a pre-existing family connection that must have been instrumental, one way or another, in bringing the young couple together.
But “chance encounters” probably were as common a way of meeting your future partner in the past as they are today. My great-grandfather Jack emigrated from Italy in 1910 and settled in Manhattan, in an area intensely populated by Italian immigrants. The US Federal census shows us that one of the other inhabitants in the same building block where my great-grandfather ended up was a man called Giacomo Amerio; two years later, Giacomo’s sister arrived from Italy, he introduced her to his flatmate Jack and the rest, as they say, is history!
We cannot always hope to find documentary proof for such seemingly inconsequential moments in history, but considering the pivotal role that these events have played in our own family history, I think it’s time we revisit our family tree and try to figure out how exactly our ancestors met and how we, eventually, came to be!
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