Great-grandma may be listed as a widow in the 1900 federal census…but she might not actually be a widow after all. Women in the past sometimes claimed widowhood to protect their family’s good name. A recent reader’s question prompted this post for sharing some tips to finding widows, disappearing husbands, and lost relatives.
Widow or Not?
Genealogy Gems reader, Mary, wrote us the following comment:
“My grandmother Kitty’s first husband was Robert Lee Jeffries. They married in 1887 and had 4 or 5 children. He died in the very early 1900’s. She later remarried my grandfather, John, and they had four children together. All this took place in Hardin County, Kentucky. I cannot find when, where, or how her first husband died, or where he is buried. Can you help me?”
I think we can give Mary some tips to help her find Robert. As you read along, consider how these same tips and techniques could help you in finding widows, disappearing husbands, and lost relatives.
Finding Death Records in the Early 1900s
A death record is typically a good way to determine where someone went. If you can locate a death record for your lost individual, they aren’t lost anymore! Finding death records for the time period that Mary is asking about isn’t usually too difficult, unless there has been a record loss for that county. By doing a quick check on FamilySearch wiki for Hardin County, Kentucky, I learned that many records between 1852 and 1911 are missing, including some of the death records. That may be why Mary wasn’t able to find one.
When a death record can’t be found, there are many alternatives that we can exhaust. Cemetery records, newspaper obituaries, and probate records are just a few suggestions. But before we move into alternative records, something caught my attention.
With a last name like “Jeffries,” there could be several ways to spell it. Jeffrys, Jefferies, Jeffres, and perhaps many more. What can you do when you have a name, first or last, that could be spelled so many different ways?
One suggestion is to search by each of the possible name spellings, but another tool is to use an asterisk or wildcard. The first part of the surname Jeffries is always the same: J e f f. Whether you are searching records at Ancestry, Findmypast, or MyHeritage, you can use an asterisk after the last “f” to indicate you are looking for any of the possible surname spellings.
I didn’t find any great matches using the criteria you see in the image above, but I took off the death date range and Kitty’s name and found Bob Lee JeffERies living in his parents home in 1880 in Hardin County, Kentucky. Take a close look at this image:
Do you see the mistake? If you look at the digital image of the census, it spells the surname as Jeffries, however the record is indexed as Jefferies. Not to mention that Robert Lee is recorded as Bob Lee. This combination of name differences will always cause a little hiccup in our search process. This is why it is so important to consider name spellings when searching for records.
Even though using an asterisk didn’t produce a death record, you can see how using a tip like this can help when searching for any records online.
Alternatives to Death Records
Like I mentioned before, Hardin county had some record losses. Just because their death records may have been lost or destroyed, doesn’t mean the probate records were.
Using FamilySearch.org, I used the browse option to search probate record books in Hardin county, Kentucky. I found a record dated 25 Apr 1893, in which Kitty wrote her own will.  She mentions Lucy (possibly Robert’s mother found in the 1880 census) and others by name. What is strange is there’s no mention of a husband. I wondered if perhaps husband Robert had died before 1893. Unfortunately, there was no Robert Jeffries (or any variation) in the previous record books and the record book that Kitty appeared in was the last one available online.
When no will can be found, that doesn’t mean there is not a probate record available. The next step would be to visit the Hardin County probate office or State Archives to see if there is an estate packet available for Robert.
An estate packet is typically filled with all sorts of genealogy goodies! Receipts, list of heirs, and affidavits may shed light on many a burning question for your targeted ancestor.
The Disappearing Husband
Sadly, not all husband’s leave their families due to their demise. In the past, it was sometimes easier and more appealing to call yourself a widow or widower when your spouse left you. Kitty wrote a will in 1893 and did not mention a husband. In 1900, she was living in her father’s house and her children were divided up among the relatives, including her in-laws. Could Robert have left Kitty and the children? There may only be one way to know for sure.
Kitty remarried. To do that, either Robert had to die or she would need to be divorced. Divorce records can sometimes be located on a county level or at a state archives. I gave Hardin County Clerk of Courts a call and found out that divorce records between the years of 1804 -1995 are held at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives. Their website provided details to ordering several types of records, including divorce records.
Looking in All the Wrong Places
Sometimes, we are so focused on one area that we can’t see past the end of our noses! Many of our ancestors lived on the borders of other counties. Hardin County, Kentucky is especially unique. It borders not only eight other Kentucky counties, but it also borders Harrison County, Indiana. It’s always a good idea to branch out to these nearby locations when you are having trouble locating records.
When struggling to find a record for any targeted ancestor, try the following:
- Consider alternate name spellings and search for common nicknames.
- When there has been a possible record loss, search for alternative records that may hold the information you are looking for.
- Determine which counties/states your targeted location is bordering and search there for records as well.
Have you found a disappearing person or long, lost relative? If so, share with us (in the comment section below) your story and how you finally tracked the elusive person down. Maybe your story will help others still searching for that missing ancestor!
More Gems on Finding Missing Ancestors
How to Search Your Ancestors’ Other Spouses and Children
6 Sources that May Name Your Ancestors’ Parents
How to Save Time and Find the Ancestors You Are Looking For
(1) “Kentucky, Probate Records, 1727-1990,” digital images online, FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org : accessed 10 Aug 2016); record for Kitty A. Jeffries, 1893; citing Will Records, Index, 1893-1915, Vol. G, page 12.
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This article was originally posted on August 24, 2016 and updated on April 18, 2019.
I have a ggmother listed as widowed in 1915-1918 philadelphia directories. Then 1920 census has a w crossed out and a m replacing it. I guess she didnt eant to lie to govt.
Ive heard it called grass widow as in the grass is greener elsewhere.
The “missing’ Hardin Co KY death records between 1852-1911 were not destroyed. They just never existed. In 1850, KY enacted legislation requiring counties to keep birth and death records along with the marriage records effective 1852. However, there was never standard enforcement and each county in existence did so sporadically. The date on the records can be confusing because many records recorded one year actually occurred in a prior year. The Civil War interrupted the random record keeping; random because not every physician, midwife or coroner in a particular county turned in their information. Some counties collected records sporadically across the state up to 1910. The Federal Govt legislated death certificates nationwide in the early 1900’s with KY making it a standard requirement in 1911. Some KY divorce records can be found at the local level in the civil court records in the county court house.
Thanks, Sharon! That’s good information!
We were looking for my friends great grandfather. His family lived in western Kentucky. Just after 1880 he moved to Southern Illinois. We believe he inherited some land from another family member. His family moved back to Kentucky and no informaion on what happened. We may have left him as unknown but there was a story being spread online that this man was a sheriff and was shot dead in Illinois. We saw no confirmation and the story was added in many family trees. This was Thompsonville, Franklin Illinois. Finally emailed the local Genealogy Society and asked where I might find such a death record. A couple of weeks later we received a reply. The Society had a book “The First Thousand Recorded Deaths Of Franklin County Il” Julia Mowery GSSI a local genealogist found his death listed in this book. This lady was so nice. The sheriff story had been spread for 9 + years. May I add a big thank you to Julia Mowery GSSI and the “Genealogical Society of Southern Illinois”.
What a great find, Kate! It pays to leave no stone unturned, doesn’t it!
My great grandparents where married and divorced in Grand Rapids Michigan. My great grandmother then ended up in San Francisco. My dad remembered meeting both of his grandparents so I’m sure my grandfather wasn’t far away. So I did find someone that fits the profile living in WA. Same occupation age place of birth. He was married to someone else. Later I find a person living in Los Angeles Ca he fits the profile.
Sounds like you are on to something Carol…best of luck!
Check city directories. One in Cleveland, OH has my great-grandmother living on the west side of the city as a widow and her husband living on the east side. In the next year they’re back together at the same west side address.
That’s a great idea, Marianne! Thanks for sharing…I had not thought of city directories!
My father was always told his maternal Gdad was dead. My father was born in 1912. While my father was overseas in WWII my mother ate dinner with his family and one night there was a flurry of phone calls that my mother said had to do with his dead grandfather = she just listened. I started looking but Philadelphia is a large place. The death certs weren’t online in 2003 so I spent alot of $ trying to guess the name used on the death cert between 1935 and 1950. I sent multiple requests with many $ to the state. I finally guessed it and got the death cert 1 month before my father died. I knew my Ggranddad had lived at a Roman Catholic destitute seniors home, and likely was buried in an RC cemetery but I had no luck with searching those. When the PA death cert index finally came online, I could see why it was a struggle for the state to find him pursuant to my requests. Sometimes it just pays to wait. The name Frank Hess was not uncommon – I could find him alive but couldn’t prove it was him. I needed to find him dead and hoped the death cert would contain the info needed – it did!
I also was able to help a new DNA cousin with his search for his GGgrandmother’s first husband. I research collaterals and obtain all sorts of records for them. I was able to give him a copy of his GGgrandmother’s Civil War pension application for continuation of her 2nd husband’s pension. It contained the full story of what happened to the first husband. NO STONE UNTURNED.
Such great advice. Thanks!
Recently I came across another reason why a woman may say she was a widow – she was divorced . I found this in two different relatives that weren’t related to each other . Also at that time period, I think it would be understandable .
Some early death records in Arkansas are not available because the counties were slow about complying with the law. My husband has an ancestor (grandfather) who we knew died around 1922 because my mother-in-law remembered she was around five year old when her father died. Knowing that he was recorded in the 1920 census, I was able to pinpoint it further when I found a record in a courthouse in AR where his wife sold their land on her own in 1921. He died sometime between the 1920 census and the sale of the land in 1921. My mother-in-law would have actually been four years of age.
I lost track of a brother of two of my direct line ancestors around 1885 in NC; found his wife still in NC near her family in wills, deeds, census and death records through her death in 1919, sometimes married, sometimes widowed. A search on FamilySearch.org brought up census records on a man fitting his profile in FL in 1900, 1910 and 1920, married to another woman. I tracked them in Ancestry.com city directories in several FL cities and found her in the 1930 census still in FL. Found both FL death records; his birth place was unknown, but hers was a misspelled version of his NC county of origin. Looking at the 1900 and 1910 census records of the wives showed that neither had ever had a child, which made me think it was the same man who couldn’t father children. A random conversation with a relative at a family reunion a few years ago resulted in the story that this brother went out to feed the livestock one morning and just disappeared; no one in the family heard from him for over 20 years until my 2x great-grandparents went to FL to visit a son in the early 1900s and spotted him at the RR station as they prepared to return home. The brothers spoke there, but no one knows if they ever had contact again. The story leads me to believe I am on the right track for this collateral ancestor.
My great-great-grandmother, Mary O’Fay, is listed in the Detroit city directories and several censuses as “widow of James (O’Fay).
But I’ve never been able to find any records of a James O’Fay. And her death certificate says her parents’ surname was O’Fay. My grandmother, who lived with her as a child, swore she was Irish, yet her death certificate says she was born in Scotland in 1810.
I wondered why my great-grandmother’s brother didn’t marry his partner, later wife, for nearly 20 years after they got together. Turns out her husband had disappeared from town, possibly across the border, one step ahead of the law. She never divorced him but later married my relative/ancestor. A genealogist whom I questioned about the situation told me that 100 years or more ago, such a disappearance, after a period of time was simply regarded as enough proof of death that the remaining spouse was free to marry again.
I was aware that my gr. grandfather abandoned my gr. grandmother and grandmother. I found her in the San Francisco Directory listed as a widow and her “husband” right under her as a bar keep. I found that kind of funny. I did find a notice in the newspaper granting her a divorce with custody of the child and 15.00 a month alimony. I wonder if she ever collected….not likely.
Nancy…finding information about divorces in the newspaper is a great resource I didn’t mention. Thanks for sharing!
Lisa, thank you so much! i have many Hardin Co. Ky relatives and you just helped me direct my attention to other sources to find them. I have many vanishing widows who fit this picture including my great grandmother. And a vanishing grandfather who seemed to come into the picture only to have children then leave!
So glad you found the article helpful. Thank you!
Thank you for sharing. In my own trees, I’ve made the mistake of assuming that widow was the legitimate status. And I completely discounted somebody who was the correct age, name, and birth place living one county over as her ex-husband, my ancestor. It took someone else pointing out the obvious to me to make me rethink things.
What do you know? iam also researching my second great grandfather, George Henry Field also living in Hardin Co! i found his will, found his deeds but can’t find out where he is buried? or divorce records because he married his 2nd wife’s sister while she was still alive (the first wife that is) The problem with Hardin Co is not all the records are digitized. When he died in 1900, his wife lost the property due to foreclosure in 1905. That book was not digitized but Hardin Co has a wonderful lady who will help you in the deeds dept.
Your article states that for Kitty to remarry, her husband Robert would have to die or Kitty would have to divorce. There’s another reason which doesn’t often occur, but I did find an example when researching a close relative’s ancestors. In rare situations, bigamy can account for a subsequent marriage! In the example I researched, it seems that when the husband’s wife deserted him and moved to another state, he did not file for divorce, but waited several years before simply marrying another woman. Everyone “assumed” he had gotten a divorce, but no records have been found for proof even after extensive searches.