Thinking About How Couples Met

In 1898, the sensationalist New York American reported the story of an unusual engagement. A Polish man from Pennsylvania had approached a New York City saloonkeeper and offered to pay him $20 for his help in finding the man a wife. The immigrant requested that for the same $20 the saloonkeeper host a party—complete with music, lunch, whiskey, beer, and cigars—to celebrate the engagement. The saloonkeeper agreed. He found a woman willing to marry the stranger, and he held the festivities as promised. The bride balked, however, when she heard that her intended groom expected her to move to Pennsylvania. With the marriage called off, the Polish man asked for a refund. Appearing in Police Court, the saloonkeeper agreed to return the $20 saying he had enjoyed the party anyway.[1] Most researchers will not discover a story like this one, but questioning how the couples in a family met can help genealogists brainstorm about research questions, develop strategies, and streamline investigations.

Today, couples meet in all sorts of ways. The may be introduced by friends or family, or they could work together or attend the same school. Perhaps they participate on the same sports team, live in the same neighborhood, worship at the same church, or shop in the same store. They may meet online through social media or an Internet dating site. In all cases, however, there is a point at which two individual lifepaths converge.

Ancestral couples have converging lifepaths, just as modern couples do. The couples genealogists study all had some sort of connection—a shared person, place, or thing—that initially brought them together. Fortunate researchers may uncover details in biographical sketches, journals, letters, newspaper items, court records, military pension files, or other sources. Even if the exact story is never learned, thinking about a couple—together and as individuals—and considering the possible ways their lives first interconnected is a valuable exercise.

Some married couples had origins that were fairly distant, causing researchers to wonder how they met one another. It is possible that the husband served in the military with someone the woman knew—perhaps a brother, father, cousin, or brother-in-law.  If the husband did not serve with someone connected to the wife, it could be that military service sent him to the wife’s hometown temporarily, allowing the two to cross paths.

Travel-related occupations made it possible for people residing in distant places to meet one another. Is it a surprise that a steamboat captain from Hartford, Connecticut, who made frequent runs to New York City eventually married the daughter of a merchant captain who resided in New York? The Connecticut man’s travel route and occupation likely brought him into contact with his future wife.

Some immigrant couples met because they or their families closely associated with others who shared their origins. The couple may have been members of a social organization consisting of people from the same Irish county, or they may have resided in a neighborhood populated by individuals from the same region in Italy.

It is not uncommon to see two families connected by multiple marriages—siblings marrying siblings, siblings marrying cousins, and brothers marrying aunt and niece, for example. Sometimes a widowed spouse with young children married a relative of the deceased partner—perhaps the dead wife’s sister or the dead husband’s brother.

Scenarios explaining how ancestral couples may have met are endless, and in most cases the whole story will never be known. So why should researchers think about this question? Genealogists can use these considerations to their advantage, as in the following examples:

  • Theories can help zero in on a family, individual, or record of interest. Say the name of a married woman’s father is known, but there are several candidates in the area by that name. Initially focusing on those with an occupation related to that of the woman’s husband is a logical way to prioritize the search for evidence of the father-daughter relationship.
  • Speculating about a couple’s connections may lead to evidence of a woman’s maiden name and parents. Say, for example, two men are connected in multiple ways. They may have been business partners, neighbors, and witnesses for one another’s deeds, for example. While the relationship could have several explanations, one possibility is that the men are related through marriage—one man’s wife may be a relative of the other man. Exploring records of a man’s associates could result in discoveries about the man’s spouse.
  • Hypothesizing about how a couple may have met can help in the development of research strategies addressing origins. If a man born in the United States married an immigrant woman soon after her arrival, it is possible they or their families were previously acquainted. Exploring the wife’s overseas origins could reveal information about the man’s family. Similarly, couples who married after migrating from one location to another within the United States may have a connection at the former place of residence. If the origins of one spouse are known, exploring the locale for records related to the other half of the couple may prove worthwhile.

Genealogists who ask “How did they meet?” have advantages over those who do not.  The purpose of thinking about how couples met is not necessarily to tell that story—although some researchers will undoubtedly uncover those details. The point is, rather, to consider how their paths may have initially crossed. With those possibilities in mind, researchers have theoretical frameworks for analyzing evidence, developing strategies, and planning research.

[1] “Wanted a Wife with a Banquet Thrown in for Twenty Dollars,” New York American (New York, N.Y.), 24 Sept. 1898, p. 3, col. 6.

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