Relationships can be complicated. Everyone knows that. There are many songs, movies, and plays out there detailing the tangles and twists of relationships, each with their own dose of dramatic flair. And despite what anyone might say about life being simpler in the good old days, complicated relationships are nothing new—as demonstrated by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was originally published in 1597 and is still the standard for complicated relationships.
Each of us has plenty of these messy relationships in our family tree. Sometimes the juicy details get lost in the abyss of history, but other times family stories that offer glimpses into our ancestors’ complicated relationships survive. Occasionally, evidence of these relationships has been preserved in the records. Of course, you’ve got to be careful when researching these stories. You can’t believe everything you hear or see in your family history—especially when it comes to what might be less-than-exemplary behavior from ancestors. But if you dig deep enough, you’re sure to find a few interesting stories.
Here are a couple relationships with some bumps and bruises from my family:
When I was sixteen, I interviewed my great-grandmother who was then in her 80s. She was a vivacious woman everyone called Dolly. When I asked her to tell me the story of marrying my great-grandfather, Walt Mulford, she answered with a mischievous smile, “Now that’s a secret I can’t tell you until you’re older.”
While I had only been mildly interested in the story before, now I was hooked, and eventually I did uncover her story. With her long, blonde hair and love of dancing, Dolly turned a few heads in her teenage years. She lived at home in Escalante, Utah, with her father and siblings. Dolly’s mother died when Dolly was 14, leaving her and her older sister with heavy family responsibilities and little supervision. When Walt Mulford, a handsome, older man came to town and showed interest in her, Dolly was instantly smitten. Dolly’s father, however, did not share her enthusiasm. Walt was more than a little rough around the edges, and the excitement of those rough edges is exactly what drew Dolly to him. She had known him only a few days when he asked her to elope with him and she agreed. Her father tried to chase after them, but he was too late. By the time he found them, they were married. The marriage certificate says Walt was 21 and Dolly was 19. Dolly’s age was a lie—she told the official she was 19 so he would agree to marry them. Dolly was actually 15!
4th Time’s the Charm?
No stories survive about Christoph Harprecht, my fifth-great-grandfather, born in 1743 in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Germany. But the records have their own story to tell. Christoph, it appears, was the epitome of a man unlucky in love, and it’s all captured in the notes of the comment column in one marriage record. This record of Christoph’s marriage to Anna Katharina Elisabeth Bulls tells us that it was his fourth marriage. Although it doesn’t provide names of previous wives, it does tell us his second and third wives died in 1826 and 1830. A note in the death record of the 3rd wife explains that she died from exposure after going out in a snowstorm and getting lost.
The most interesting part of this 4th marriage record is what it tells us about his first marriage, the marriage I’m descended from. After 20 years, Christoph divorced this wife, something that was very unusual among the peasants in Germany at that time. The divorce was most likely made possible only because of lenient divorce policies that Napoleon put in place during his brief rule.
Christoph’s death record adds the clencher in his sad story. A note written by the pastor states that in Christoph’s final years, he was supported by the parish poor house.
I also have in my family tree someone who married her father’s friend when she was 16 and he was 46. Then there’s Charlie, one of my ancestors, who swore all his life that he was the son of his mother’s second husband, the man who raised him, instead of the son of her first husband, a man everybody detested. Some people couldn’t help noticing, though, that Charlie looked a lot more like the first husband—and the timeline confirms that first husband, unpopular as he may have been, was really Charlie’s father. The second husband wasn’t even in the state yet when Charlie’s mother got pregnant.
The best story of all might be about my husband’s great-grandfather, Leslie Vincent. Just a few years ago, a woman contacted my husband’s aunt, a granddaughter of Leslie Vincent, saying she was also a granddaughter of Leslie Vincent. The two women don’t have the same grandmother, though. Leslie Vincent didn’t marry more than once—he just had two families who lived around the corner from each other in New York City. He never married the other woman and never told his wife that the second family existed. That was the first my husband’s family had heard of it!
Locating the Complicated Relationships in Your Family
Are you ready to poke around in your own family tree and see what unique relationships you might uncover there? The most straight-forward place to look, of course, is in marriage records. FamilySearch has a large, growing collection of marriage records. (You can read more about those records at FamilySearch.org/blog/en/index-marriage-records.) Remember that sometimes these records won’t contain what you expected, so be open-minded and creative when you search.
Listen to family stories. Take them with a grain of salt, but don’t just dismiss them. Sometimes a speck of truth in them might be the strangest, least plausible part of the story! Pay attention to dates, and create a timeline when you suspect there might be something askew.
And remember, people have been generating ideas for romantic comedy—and tragedy—since before Shakespeare began writing about it.