Saturday, November 19, 2011

My Ancestors weren’t Married?! (Part 1-Intro)

I have heard that “Common Law Marriage” was common (pardon the pun) in the islands.  I had no idea just how common it was until I researched it myself.  Turns out that over 75% of the records I examined showed that children's parents were not married.

This series of posts will share the methodology I used and results I obtained by examining and recording over 9,000 baptismal records from 1841-1934. Since this is a long topic, I have decided to split it over several posts. In this first post, I describe why I decided to take up the study, and how it fits into the understanding of my family.  Subsequent posts will share what I learned.
imageI began my genealogical journey back in May 2011 by stumbling on a database of St. Croix census records at the Danish Archives online site, the Dansk Denografisk Database ( On a lark, I put in the information for my grandfather, Ludvig Conrad, and hit SEARCH. It returned several census returns. The 1901 census showed him with his father, Christian Andreas, and his mother, Hesther, along with four siblings.

Then I searched on Christian Andreas. I found several records of him in a household with other Conrad children headed by Sophia  Andersen. Looking at the details, each record showed Sophia listed as "unmarried" although she had several children, all with the surname "Conrad". Looking further, I found records of Sophia in a household headed by Eliza Scott, listed both as "unmarried" and as "mother". There were several children in that family, all named "Andersen", like Sophia. To make matters worse, in this case, I could find no record of any fathers; they weren't listed in the household. This is one of my most active areas of research now: Find the Missing Fathers. Two generations in a row of unwed mothers; this appeared to be our family scandal.

imageI shared this information with my mother and a cousin (who had done a lot of genealogy work, but none on this branch of the family). He suggested that maybe Sophia was not the mother of the Conrad children but rather a caretaker, a guardian of sorts. I wasn’t comfortable with this explanation since she had 3 Conrad children in the 1860 census and 4 in the 1870 census. The fact that the children arrived in her household gradually (as they were born) and all carried the same surname made me uncomfortable with that explanation.  Seeing a similar situation with Eliza Scott and the Andersen children suggested something more straightforward.

Since I was just beginning, I had a lot of family to cover. I pushed on filling my branches and tracking down records. Census documents showed more couples listed as unmarried, with mothers keeping maiden names and children sharing fathers' surnames. Actually, quite a few. I figured that maybe the Danish West Indies government just wasn't very diligent at recording marital status on the census. Possibly they recorded widows as unmarried. Maybe they listed women as unmarried if the husbands weren't home at the time of the census. There were a myriad of possibilities, but none of them seemed right. More and more it looked like the census was accurate: they just weren't married.

After I exhausted the censuses (1841-1930) I moved to church records. Most of my family was Lutheran or Anglican and I got ahold of the baptismal registers from the LDS and NARA. Some of the baptismal registers had a column to check whether the child was "legitimate" or "illegitimate". As I browsed the listings I noticed a very high occurrence of illegitimate children, children whose parents had different surnames, or children with no father listed. Far too many. It looked as if there were more illegitimate children than legitimate ones. That troubled me since I had always thought of the 19th century as being guided by Victorian morality. Further, the island population was highly religious and nearly all the children were baptized in churches. As I point out in my post, Religion in St. Croix 1841-1911 nearly 99% of the population were associated with a particular church.

Since I am new to genealogy, I'm trying to learn as much as I can about the field. One of my favorite sources of information is podcasts. I was listening to old shows of one of my favorites, The Genealogy Guys #189 from November 7 2009. The Genealogy Guys, like most other English language genealogy podcasts, focus on American and Western European genealogy. They were discussing out-of-wedlock births, English bastardy bonds, and homes-for-unwed-mothers. It was clear from the discussion, that historically, illegitimate births were unusual, somewhat scandalous, and relatively uncommon, although by no means unheard of. Although it isn’t easy to find statistics of unwed births, it appears that the rate in the US in the mid to late 19th century was about 4% illegitimate.

So, with a rate of 4%, most people will have one or two in their tree somewhere. Not a bunch. It got me thinking about what I was seeing. From my observation it appeared to be the norm, rather than the exception. So, what was the actual rate of illegitimate births on St. Croix? I had to research this.
Next time, I will share the details of how I pursued the study.


  1. When asked why many of my ancestors from St. Thomas did not marry, my Grannie would simply say ‘it was not the custom.’- No family scandal- it was just the ‘norm’. Only after starting to research the baptismal and census records did I realize that she was right. It is a very common finding in island families and I’ve seen many different reasons given.

    Many of my family lines from the DWI are matrilineal. When you look at census records, often you will find the children, mother, sometimes the maternal grandmother, but it is harder to find the fathers. Much of the time the fathers ‘owned up’ and are usually are found in the baptism records especially in the post emancipation period. It is very different my Pennsylvania research where it is often more difficult to discern the mother who may simply listed as ‘Mrs. John Arnold’ or ‘Mary’.


  2. David,
    I did my thesis on this.
    One has to look at the Caribbean, not thru the eyes of our neighborhood, but as an anthropologist. The US Virgin Islands and those owned by the Netherlands, were unique from all the other islands, as they were owned that were people to had travled the world, and was not uncomfortable with other cultures, as the English French, Spanish and Portugesse.
    The Nohrs had intermarried with many diffrent cultures when they went a'Viking.
    The second thing to consider, is you are looking at former slave societies, where mating was the norm, forced or otherwise.
    Thirdly, Religion. There the English had an influence, they put their moral stamp.
    Fourth, think of the Caribbean as 'spring break' for the Colonials.
    Fifth, Love, affection or what have you, played an important part.
    Take the case of John Astor's soninlaw who left this wife in New York, for a native woman in St. Thomas, known as Miss Chiggerfoot, and had a family of several children.
    I have known of many couples that had been together for 'rolling years', who quietly went to a judge or minister and got married, or lived together and only when one died hid you find out that they were not married.
    Many of them followed the old custom of Jumping the Broom.
    Ann\PS, ignore the spelling errors, rushing to an apt.

  3. Dear David,
    You are confused as to how a woman named Sophia Anderson can have a houseful of children with the last name "Conrad". To answer this question, you have to consider the cultural situation with the Danish West Indies prior to 1917. The best sources are Lucy Hørlyk's book "In Danish Times". In one particular story entitled "Nana Judith", a Danish Government doctor, a recent arrival to the islands, talks about how the Europeans are being influenced by the freed Africans in terms of their propensity to carrying on with more than one woman. Likewise, in Knud Knud-Hansen's memoir entitled "From Denmark to the Virgin Islands" he talks about how men frequently carry on with more than one woman and when the Government tried clamping down on it (i.e. forcing them to marry the mothers of their children), they simply respond by saying, "But that would be impossible as most of us are already married."

    The answer is simple. Polygamy is very common in black society. It is even practiced here in the U.S. by blacks albeit without the marriage license. They have the primary wife and the "sugar" on the side. Most likely, the woman named Sophia Anderson was Mr. Conrad's 2nd wife (or concubine) existing concurrently to his 1st marriage, and all those children are his as well. This is the only plausible solution. It may not be nice to say these things, it may be culturally insensitive, but it is the honest truth. That's why, at Ellis Island, the inspectors were so careful to not let any polygamists immigrate into the U.S. Until fairly recently, we've managed to protect the institution of marriage. Even in the Sephardic Community of St. Thomas, many of the Jews had concubines and even to this day you can find black families with the last names: Robles, Monsanto, De Castro, Maduro, Fidanque, Sasso: all Jewish names.