Monday, December 5, 2011

My Ancestors weren’t Married?! (Part 4-Trends)

This is the fourth part of a series on my study into St. Croix marriages. In Part 1, I described what made me undertake this study. In Part 2, I discussed my methodology and results. Part 3 discussed the decline of baptisms and commented on emigration. In this final part, I will share my findings on how the legitimacy rates changed over time.  Future parts will await further analyses.

In my previous post, I showed that overall, less than 24% of the children recorded by the Christiansted Anglican church from 1841-1934 were born to married couples.  I wanted to see how that number changed over time, assuming that it would shrink as we entered the modern (post Transfer) period.  I also wanted to see how the proportion differed between the Towns (Christiansted and Frederiksted) and the various estates.  The chart below shows what I found.  I grouped the data into more or less 4-year groups, adjusting my bin size when insufficient data made a strict grouping skewed.


Immediately you can see the surprising result that the total births to married couples showed no real change over time.  Although there were fluctuations (as would be expected for data sets under 100), there is no underlying trend in the total.  The practice of “common law marriage” that prevailed in the mid 1800’s continued well into the modern era.  I found this surprising.

Secondly, I do see a trend in the distribution of the rates for the towns and the estates.  In the period immediately following emancipation, legitimate births in the towns were running about 35% and on the estates it was around 13%.  This may be expected from a socio-economic view since the estates were overwhelmingly freedmen without strong family structures.  Citizens of the towns were more mixed, but had a well-established merchant class.  Although the government elite also occupied the towns, they aren’t really well represented in the data since they were typically Lutheran, and this data was from the Anglican church.  So the data seem to make sense from a socio-economic view. To understand whether this view helped explain the distribution over time, I looked at the total populations (again, just from the perspective of Anglican baptisms) of the towns and estates.




This chart clearly shows a migration of freedmen from the estates into the towns, almost immediately after the Fireburn in 1878.  This seems reasonable, since the elimination of the strict labor contracts gave former slaves the freedom to move about more freely and also drastically reduced the number of jobs available on plantations.   The decline of demand for cane sugar reduced the profitability of the estates and moved the island away from an agricultural economy, leading to the Danish desire to sell the islands.

Before jumping to the conclusion that the common-law marriage was a poor-man’s habit, we should remember that, in the cities, the percentage of legitimate baptisms peaked at about 40% .  Still a minority.  The practice of common-law marriage was common across economic strata, it was just more pronounced for the poor.  Marriage may have had more to do with inheritance rights than either religious or social concerns.  This would explain why the marriage records from the time (and my family) have quite a large number of elderly people (over age 60) getting married.  As you would expect, these marriages aren’t reflected in my study since not too many 60-year-old mothers get their newborns baptized.

For genealogists this is a two-edged sword.  People researching their ancestry in continental Europe and the US often have difficulty finding women’s maiden names.  For island couples that didn’t marry, the practice was that the women maintained their maiden names for life.  Makes tracing maternal lineages much easier.

On the other hand, there is an unusually large volume of baptisms recorded without a father’s name listed. Often, they are just blank where the father’s name should appear.  The Anglican records didn’t typically record fathers of unmarried couples until 1894, so for children born from 1841-1894 there may be no record of their father at all.  Since children were usually given the father’s surname, there are clues, but no primary evidence to go on.  This creates a lot of brick walls.  After 1894, there are still quite a few baptisms recorded without father’s names.  This chart shows the prevalence.


This shows that over 50% of the children baptized in the Anglican church up to 1889 and as many as 10% after 1925 have no father recorded by the church.  Remember that population peaked during the mid 1800’s, so that’s the lion’s share. That’s a total of 4,311 with no recorded father out of 9,277 recorded baptisms.  At a time without formal civil registration.  Like we needed more difficulty in researching our island ancestors!

I hope you enjoyed this series and found the study as interesting as I did.  Please take a moment to leave a comment, it helps me understand what you are interested in reading and it spurs discussion amongst other readers.  Also, if you want to contact me directly without posting your contact information, you can mail me at

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