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June brides (and all the rest) lost more than their name

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 03:50 AM

June historically is the most popular month for weddings. One explanation is that it's named for Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage. Juno was said to bestow blessings of prosperity and happiness to couples married during her month.

Today's brides, whatever their month of marriage, don't gain or lose any legal rights or privileges, but things were far different for our female ancestors. Until the mid to late 1800s women legally ceased to exist after they walked down the aisle.

Many of the key records such as wills, deeds, and marriage licenses that genealogists search are legal documents. Since the law didn't recognize married women, they didn't create any of those valuable records.

Coverture was the doctrine that merged a woman's legal identity into that of husband. A married woman was called a "feme covert."

If a single woman owned land, control of it immediately went to her husband when she married. If she worked, perhaps as a midwife or seamstress, all her earnings belonged to him.

Scholars generally said that in return for gaining full ownership of all his wife's personal property and real estate, a husband was bound to support her so long as she did not run off with another man.

If a woman did run away and later entered into a contract with a vendor or other person, her husband was not responsible for the debt because he had not agreed for her to make the contract.

Just to be sure they weren't going to be stuck with an errant wife's debts, many jilted husbands posted notices in newspapers or tacked them on posts in the commercial areas of town.

Such was the case of Jeremiah Pearce, who on July 1, 1771 ran this notice in a Virginia newspaper: "Whereas my wife Elizabeth has without the least provocation absconded from me and declared she will not return to her duty, these are to forewarn all persons from giving her credit on my account, as I am determined to pay no debt she may contract after this date."

Generally, however, men were responsible in every way for the support of their wives and children. Society expected them to meet those obligations and for the woman to quietly live in the background, keeping the house, conceiving, raising and often educating the children.

So obviously, when women married, they gave up much more than the surnames with which they were born. The loss of the surname, combined with the loss of identity, makes it seemingly impossible to find female ancestors.

This explains why our pedigree charts appear lopsided - many women on the tree are listed as Mary ? or Mary "Unknown."

For long periods of American history the marriage license was the last legal document a woman created. New researchers or even non-genealogists reading this could be scratching their heads at this point, wondering why we don't just locate those marriage records and get the premarital names of our female ancestors.

Ah, if only it were that simple. Marriages didn't always get recorded, courthouses burned (taking the records with them), officials sometimes weren't good stewards of the records on which time has taken an unkind toll.

So without marriage records, wills and deeds, what do we do? The answer is logical, but that doesn't mean the research is easy.

Consider this: Most women became brides at a young age. Girls could marry at age 12 in 18th- and 19th-century America but more commonly married between 16 and 18. There are few records that a girl of that age would have created on her own. Her father would have cared for and acted on her behalf.

So here we have girls under the legal arms of their fathers gliding right into the legal arms of their husbands. Logic directs that if we want to identify our female ancestors and learn more about them, we must look to the records their fathers and husbands created.

In next week's column we'll look at research strategies and techniques to locate the hidden women on our pedigree charts.

If you can't wait that long, I'll be conducting a two-hour workshop Thursday at the SouthShore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin. "Behind Every Good Man ... Was a Female Ancestor" will explore these issues of our foremothers in more depth.

There is no charge; the workshop is sponsored by the Friends of the Library. It begins at 2 p.m. Seating is limited to 25 people and tickets will be distributed at the front counter beginning at 1 p.m.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist wit

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