Warning: Some readers may find this subject offfensive. It is not so intended, but is meant to rather to create an awareness and openess, and perhaps to prompt some questioning (not the least of which is my own!). You’ll notice I have not named names in this postings, for while these things happened over 100 years ago, they are still sensitive subjects and may offend some.
When we start prodding and poking around the family tree we have to be prepared to find almost anything. Every tree has a skeleton or two lying somewhere. To date I hadn’t found anything that I considered very skeleton’ish, and in fact was disparing a little about that. Why was my family so dull?
Yesterday I didn’t so much uncover, but ruminate at bit on one side of my family. My great-great-grandfather, we’ll call him Alvin, was 25 when he married. My great-great-grandmother, we’ll call her Stephanie, was married exactly one month after her fifteenth birthday. We’re talking 1889, and times were very different, especially out west here where women were still more difficult to find. Alvin had come over to “America” from England at about age 19. I had also been told me how Stephanie had not started “bleeding” (menstruating) when she was first married, but that her new husband was patient. Okay, fair enough, times were different.
Yesterday I found them on the 1900 US Census, a surprise to find them there as my great-grandfather had been born in Canada the year before. Their neighbours, I was happy to find, were Stephanie’s parents and some of her siblings. Yay! Take the tree back another generation! and on a female line, bonus!
The household that her parents lived in was headed by one of her brothers. He was newly married (the 1900 census asked for number of years married, to which the answer was zero). His new wife was 15, he was 30. A quick search of the Washington State Digital Archives and I found that she too was just one month past her fifteenth birthday when she was married.
This pattern was repeated in at least two other marriages within this generation of this family.
I’m not sure why I find this slightly disturbing. Perhaps the youth of the brides, with the relatively large age differences* paired with whisperings of sibling incest just are too much to comprehend. Maybe it’s knowing that these marriages were arranged with the parents when the girls’ were 14. Or perhaps it’s just a sadness at beginning to understand how difficult life was for these girls, with full womanhood thrust upon them so young. The parents in all cases came over to “America” from England and had themselves married more traditionally, age-wise (they had all been in their 20s/30s and had age differences of between 1 and 8 years). So, finally, I have found something I would consider a skeleton, and begin to understand how carefully we must tread, how we must stretch our own understanding and compassion. It is quite an exercise.
*note how a 15 year age difference is huge at age 15, but not such a big deal at 70.