Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Ancestors weren’t Married?! (Part 2-The Study)

1877-Joseph Christian-64 (Large)
Page from 1877 Baptismal Register
This is the second part of a series on my study into St. Croix marriages.  In Part 1, I described what made me undertake this study. In this part, I discuss my methodology and results.

Researching a population is harder than researching a family, at least in terms of the sheer volume of records. I needed a way to get a feel for the balance of legitimate vs. illegitimate births without making it a PhD dissertation or requiring a Government Grant. The Anglican baptismal registers provided me this opportunity.

In my post Religion in St. Croix 1841-1911 I showed that the Anglican church was the largest church on St Croix throughout the 19th century, and on into the 20th. The congregation was composed of a fair cross-section of the population, from plantation owners and merchants to servants and field slaves. The Anglican church is, and was, a mainstream church, fairly conservative in its doctrine. In terms of teachings, it occupies a space between Roman Catholic and the other large churches, Lutheran and Moravian. There is no reason to believe that either socially, economically, or dogmatically, the Anglican church should have a different view of marriage than the population as a whole. So, I judged the Anglican records as a reasonable sample for my analysis. (Keep in mind that I first noticed this tendency toward illegitimacy in Lutheran records and have seen the exact same tendency in both Roman Catholic and Moravian).
As I describe in Anglican Church Records at, the LDS website,, hosts a browsable, but not indexed, collection of St. John's Episcopal Anglican church baptismal registers from 1841-1934. St. John's was the Anglican (or English) church in Christiansted, and was the largest church of that time. With the exception of those from 1855-1867, these registers are fairly complete, intact, legible, and in English. I highlighted the state of the 1855-1867 registers in my previous post. The scans are excellent and the website is easy to navigate. Since I had planned to go through the registers to look for relatives line-by-line anyway, I took the opportunity to make a count of the legitimacy status of all the entries in the books.

Obviously, the easiest way to stratify the population is socio-economically. One can make a hypothesis that marriage was common with the white population and not common with the colored or slave (or former slave) population. Unfortunately, the records don't show race or free status, so I couldn't readily determine that. What they did show was residence. Residence gives me a little insight into the status.

In St Croix, there were (and are) two cities, Christiansted (or Bassin) and Frederiksted (or West End), and numerous plantations. From an analysis of the census records, about 24% lived in Christiansted, 16% in Frederiksted, and 60% of the population lived in the country. Population statistics show that the vast majority of plantation residents were from lower economic classes with a small number of more wealthy owners and estate managers. In the cities, it was more evenly distributed, with a smaller percentage of slaves and a larger merchant class as well as the elite government class and military.

Since the composition of city and country populations were obviously different, I tried to maintain separate counts according to whether the mothers were from the city or country. The focus on the mothers' residence as the differentiator was driven by the fact that while all children have a mother listed, they don't always list a father.

Unfortunately, the Anglican records don't list the legitimacy of the child (except in a very small number of cases), I have had to make assumptions regarding that. They don't have a column to indicate whether a couple was married. Married couples are typically listed as "John and Mary Smith", "John Smith & Mary (his wife)", or just "John Smith" & "Mary Smith". Since I was seeking to show that the number of unmarried couples having children was unusually high, I decided that it was best to err on the side of over counting married couples rather than unmarried. If the couple had different surnames, I counted them as Unmarried. If it appeared that they could have been married, I counted them as married. If no father was listed, I noted that separately, and considered that child illegitimate.

Using this criteria, I reviewed the entire set of Anglican records from 1841-1934, leaving out only the records from 1855-1866 as they were poorly preserved. I categorized each entry according to these types:
Married City Unmarried City No Father City
Married Country Unmarried Country No Father Country

The 1841-1848 registers did not list residence, so I only included them in the totals for married, unmarried, and no father. The results of the analysis were very interesting.  Overall:
Children born to Married and Unmarried Couples 1841-1934
Married Unmarried No Father Total
Number 2177 2789 4311 9277
Percent 23.5% 30.1% 46.5% 100%

So less than 25% of the children baptized in the records were born to married parents.  Compare this to 96% in the US in the same time period. When I break it down by location, we do see a difference in the incidence of legitimate births:
Comparison of City vs. Country Results
Married Unmarried No Father Total
Number in City 1278 1565 1465 4308
Percent in City 29.7% 36.3% 34.0% 100%
Number in Country 768 1075 2633 4476
Percent in Country 17.2% 24.0% 58.8% 100%
From this we do see a stratification which may be attributable to socioeconomic differences.  Parents are nearly twice as likely to be married if they live in the city than if they live in the country.  They are also much more likely to have a father listed.
Some have suggested that rural areas of the US had similar differences (although not of this scale) due to geography, namely the feasibility of getting to churches.  I don’t think this applies for two reasons. First, on St. Croix, the distance between a city dweller and a country dweller was often 5-10 miles (the island is 28 miles by 7 miles).  Secondly, all of these records were taken from baptismal registers.  If they could bring a child to the city for baptism, they could certainly have gone there for a marriage.  Church attendance was high and intra-island mobility was high, even for slaves. So, this is more likely a socioeconomic effect than a geographic effect and shows simply a custom, not a difficulty.
In my next part, I will look at the changes in these records over time.


  1. Dave,
    Rutgers Univ. conducted a marriage study on changing U.S. teen attitudes towards marriage (1975-1995) and here were some of their surprising findings:

    The 1987 wave of the National Survey of Children found some striking racial differences in youth attitudes about marriage. 84% of non-black youths agreed or strongly agreed that "unless a couple is prepared to stay together for life, they should not get married." By contrast, only 63% of black females
    and 69% of black males agreed or strongly agreed with the statement (Moore & Stief, 1991).

    Another investigation of adolescents’ expectations regarding marriage and childbearing analyzed data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experience of Youth (Trent,1994). Though
    now somewhat dated, the sub-sample consisted of 6,684 never-married male and female adolescents
    between the ages 14-19. Most of the youths did not expect to marry within five years, to have a child before age 20, or to have a nonmarital birth within five years. But results varied substantially by race. 29% of Black adolescents compared to 13% of Hispanic adolescents and 11% of White adolescents expected to have a child outside of marriage within 5 years.

    Although teens from different racial/ethnic groups share similar attitudes toward marriage, they have different expectations of their likelihood of marriage. In particular, among high school students, Hispanic and African American teens are less likely than teenage whites to expect to get married. In the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, 86 percent of white high school seniors said they expect to get married one day, compared with 76 percent for Hispanics and 75 percent for African Americans (Figure III.8). Among those students who expect to get married, Hispanics and African Americans were also less likely than whites to say they expect to stay married to the same person for life (92 percent for whites, versus 84 percent for Hispanics and 85 percent for African Americans). These estimates of marital expectations by race/ethnicity are consistent with those reported in other national data sets (Crissey 2005).

    Statistics don't lie. They reflect attitudes and expectations. And these studies show that there exist significant differences in the attutudes and expectations of modern-day homogeneous populations of white & black Americans. Therefore, in a racially divided former slave society where the population is not homogeneous (i.e. NOT coming from the same location or from a similar culture, as between those of Danish origin vs. those of African origin.) you can IMAGINE the different attitudes and expectations that must have prevailed in those days. And consider another thing: there used to be a HUGE stigma in the U.S. attached to women giving birth out of wedlock among white Americans that has ALL BUT DISAPPEARED. I'll never forget the shock I felt when I went to my first American H.S. at the age of 14 (late 1970's) and there were African-American female students VISIBLY SHOWING, something that was or would have been unthinkable for a white girl. I don't think I will ever get over the shock and horror I felt seeing those girls who were used and left to fend for themselves. Nowadays, due to cultural influences, the media, Hollywood and a gradual eroding of our culture and the institution of marriage in general, the stigma has been all but erased.

  2. Yes, times indeed are changing. Your last point is probably the biggest. I saw no evidence of a stigma associated with out-of-wedlock births in my research. In fact, I only saw a couple of contested claims in the records. One was retracted later. The other stands as contested, but the father was actually not a native Crucian. He was from the mainland US, so I imagine he was more sensitive to it than the locals. Of course, since it was contested, we can't say whether he was right or wrong.