Undocumented Chaos

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Undocumented Chaos

As genealogists looking to the past, we are forced to focus on paper records left behind by our forebears. We 
also use historical records and information about larger historical movements and cultural trends to reasonably
infer things about our ancestor's lives. For many of us, there are times when neither of these sources or 
approaches is particularly helpful. Sometimes things just do not make any logical sense. There are times 
when our confusion stems from a misconception or ignorance we have about records, history, or cultural 
practices. But there are times when we've tried to learn as much as we can about the situation and perhaps 
have asked others more knowledgeable about the area to help us out. At times even the experts are stumped.

And so I occasionally wonder: Did some event in my ancestor's life throw the entire family into chaos?

Some of these events may be easily documented. There generally are records of epidemics, natural disasters, 
or the closing of a major employer (the main exception being when these first two events took place on the 
extremely raw frontier). The impact may have been very direct and very immediate. County historical societies, 
newspapers, county histories, or other sources may provide at least some information on an outside event in 
our ancestor's life. The loss of employment by the father, the death of three family members due to an 
epidemic, or a massive flood might have easily thrown a family into turmoil. The more difficult situation is 
where the causal event left no record.

The connection may not always be easy to make.

Maybe . . .

A marriage was hastened in an attempt to avoid the draft?
An emigration took place to avoid compulsory military service?
A sudden move took place because the father lost a job?
A move took place because of a significant economic opportunity?
A child left home because of a difficult step-parent?
A son left for California to pan for gold?

In these cases the causes are partially discernable. Rash generalizations should not be made. When the 
outside factor is something large and something relatively well known it is easier to logically connect it to 
events that took place within the family. It is important though not to grasp at straws and create convoluted 
soap operas to fit scant ancestral records.

Where's The P?
In logic classes, students study implication, cause, and effect. If p happens then q happens as a result. The 
problem in some family history situations is that we have the q, but have no idea what the p was that preceded 

There are many explanations for the p above, but we'll focus now on events within the family that might have 
caused other family members to react. They might have responded in ways that do not always make sense 
when analyzed two hundred years later without the perspective of living within the actual family itself as it 
endures the turmoil.

Did Some Event Throw Your Ancestor's Life Into Chaos?
Did one parent die at a young age? The death of the father (typically the breadwinner) might have been a 
major challenge for the family. The death of the mother (typically the housekeeper and minder of the children) 
would have been equally difficult, especially if the older children were not of an age to take care of the younger 
ones. If your ancestral family was living in an area outside their kin network, the death of one young parent 
might have hit them especially hard.

Hubby Dead . . . Mouths To Feed
One ancestor died in the 1850s while in his early thirties. His widow 
Barbara was left with two small children in a town several hundred miles from where they had married and 
had family. As a German immigrant, Barbara likely spoke little English and had few marketable skills. The 
small river town where she lived offered few employment opportunities. Her options were extremely limited, 
she did not have some of the options her great-great-great-grandchildren may have today. Within six months 
of her husband's death she married a man who left her two months later. The records only point towards the 
recorded facts, they provide little idea of the likely situation in Barbara's home. And while we cannot find a 
tombstone, the breadwinner of her family was buried in the local cemetery and she was left with two young 
children to care for. She did the only thing she could: she ran her husband's tavern for several years until she 
married for the third time. And from newspaper records, that tavern was quite a place.

I had another ancestor die and leave a widow with children in Kentucky in 1814. The children were old 
enough to help out and the husband left the wife with a few hundred acres of property. Records are scant, 
but it appears this forty-something widow was not in quite the same situation as my German immigrant in 
the 1850s. Still, the road after her husband's death was likely not easy.

In some cases, children may have scattered after the father's death as a necessity. Some may have gone 
to live with other family members or even strangers. Some may have been apprenticed to learn a marketable 
skill, potentially leaving records. These apprenticeship records (if available) are typically found at the county 
level. In some cases, there may be records of guardianships as well. But if the family was particularly poor, 
records of guardianships may be non-existent.

Wife Dead . . . Mouths To Feed
A young widower with small children was in a similar situation, especially if there were no nearby family 
members to provide childcare. Widowers who had older female children may have enlisted them to help 
care for younger siblings. One of my own ancestors married three times, wives one and two likely dying in 
childbirth and leaving behind several small children. This ancestor waited a year, at most, to remarry.

My own great-great-grandmother "disappears" ca. 1882 and her two young daughters live with other families 
for several years, apparently while the father gets things "together." I am not exactly certain what happened 
in this family. All I know is that the mother "left" (or so I've been told) and was never heard from again.

Unknown Chaos?
Some of the cases already discussed leave records that hint at the problems. Some situations can 
reasonably be explained by other historical records. Not all chaotic situations leave behind records 
delineating the problem. And the records that do document the results rarely focus on the past. There may 
be no record indicating a family member was mentally unstable or had an alcohol problem. Yet these 
situations may have impacted the family significantly, perhaps for generations.

The family of the sibling of one of my great-great-grandparents had particular difficulties. The mother apparently 
became mentally unstable in the 1880s while the children were young. She died a few years later. The father 
never remarried and knew two things: "how to acquire land and drink whiskey." A doctor who visited the family 
at about the same time said he never knew a family who lived in such squalor. One of the children was 
classified as "simple" and intentionally injured himself on at least one occasion. It is not difficult to see how 
the family lost contact with other family members, particularly the mother's family. Nor is it difficult to see why 
some family members show little interest in their family's past.

This family's home life is partially documented only because upon the father's death there was legal trouble 
and court records provide a scant paragraph on the family's past. Had there been no money worth going to 
court about, this family's lifestyle would not have been documented.

Was there chaos in your ancestor's life? There might have been, but the problem will be in proving it. The real 
problem is that the chaos frequently creates records that make no sense without a rough knowledge of the 
underlying issues.

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