An ancestral secret

Nancy Dickerson Welch

A recent quiz in The Weekly Genealogist asked readers to share the nature of any secrets they’d uncovered about their ancestors. More than one third of respondents indicated that they had not uncovered any secrets – to which I say, “Hah! You just haven’t discovered them!” Of those who had uncovered ancestral secrets, the greatest number had to do with hidden marriages.

I suspect that most hidden marriages have been contracted by relatives who might be characterized as “the usual suspects”: those folks in every family who provide a long list of colorful anecdotes. In my family’s case, however, the marriage secret belonged to my maternal grandfather, who could best be characterized as a human version of Dr. Seuss’s Horton the Elephant: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.”

The big reveal happened nearly a decade after my grandfather died, and just weeks before his (second) wife’s death. In fact, it was my grandmother’s impending death that led to its discovery. My mother was concerned that important items and documents not be left untended in Grammy’s apartment while she was in the care unit of her senior living residence.

Mom wasn’t even snooping when she took things (with permission) to the bank safe deposit box, but her eye happened to catch the words “Divorce Decree” on the edge of a folded document. Initially she assumed that it was for one of her father’s siblings … practically all of them had been divorced, some more than once. What she NEVER expected to see was her father’s name!

But there it was, as clear as day: he had married at nineteen, and been divorced almost exactly a year later. My mother spent the rest of the day in almost clinical shock. During dinner that evening, she kept blurting out over and over: “I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it!!”

As an only child, one of the first questions that popped into her mind was, “Do I have an older half-sibling?” Others included who the first wife was, whether she was still alive, and how she’d met her father. But the biggest question was, “Why didn’t I find out about this before I was a senior citizen?”

Mom didn’t want to over-stress my grandmother on her deathbed, but she really wanted some answers, so she turned to an unrelated intermediary. Yes, the woman was still alive (93 at the time, and she lived another three years), and she had two daughters by her second husband – all of whom knew about their mother’s first, brief marriage! And the young couple had met in a high school math class.

One connection that my grandfather and his first wife shared was that each was descended from Oregon Trail pioneers. But whereas my Christy ancestors[1] didn’t travel the trail until after the Civil War, “the other woman’s” ancestors[2] arrived in Oregon City in 1844; two years later her great-grandmother was one of the first two white women to settle in Astoria, a town founded in 1811 by John Jacob Astor.

As for the final question, there was only one person alive who knew the answer. What did Grammy have to say about the decades-long secret? “My family was rather gossipy. They didn’t have any reason to know, so I never told them … but your father’s family all knew.”

This included my grandfather’s mother, who signed as a witness on the marriage certificate, and his sister, who never mentioned it in all the years she helped Mom with the Christy family genealogy. It even included Mom’s Aunt Karolyn, who was married to my grandfather’s closest-age brother, and who was also my grandmother’s first cousin! Karolyn learned about Grampy’s first marriage from her husband, but apparently never shared that knowledge with her extended family of origin, including my mother.

This past summer my husband and I spent a few days in Astoria, and I proposed visiting the grave of Nancy Dickerson Welch, that intrepid pioneer. However, my husband – who is generally very tolerant of my genealogical ramblings (verbal as well as literal) – drew the line at visiting the grave of my grandfather’s first wife’s great-grandmother. At least on this trip.


[1] James Sylvanus Phillips Christy (1829–1923) and Elizabeth Lennington (1837–1909).

[2] James Welch (1816–1876) and Nancy Dickerson (1818–1896).

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

23 thoughts on “An ancestral secret

  1. It certainly is strange that any person who does in depth family research would “not find any” or as a seasoned researcher myself “many” hidden family secrets. They don’t know what they are missing or they perhaps still want to keep these secrets hidden as part of their Family Genealogy. I have found numerous one’s over the years and I don’t believe I skipped a single Generation without one or more interesting little tidbits. Some were point blank in the open, however some of them were found due to my curious thoughts that something just didn’t add up. Yes, a few might be extreme, but I add all of them to my Research and feel that they truly should be there. I do not want to make it sound like these are all horrible incidents or facts because they are not. But facts such as, a drunkard, mental illness, a child out of wedlock, a handicapped child or perhaps a not so great incident that occurred with one of our youthful male/female ancestors does not eliminate them as a family member but only people who perhaps used bad judgment somewhere along their life path, did not follow their families way of thought and that could mean they are only human.

    1. I had someone contact me through to say that a newspaper article I’d posted about my ggg-grandfather’s third marriage (a totally different branch of the family than the one this story is about) couldn’t be true. His first wife (my ggg-grandmother) had died, and his second wife (her ggg-grandmother) was still alive at the time he was being sued by his third wife for divorce. I know what I found is true, but out of respect for her feelings, I removed the article. I did warn her, though, when she expressed excitement about being able to search old California newspapers online that there was some very nasty stuff about other members of the family. One of our mutual ggg-uncles went to prison for stealing horses, then deserted his wife; she ended up turning to prostitution to support herself and her son, and was put on trial for murdering her pimp (she claimed self-defense). Anyone who couldn’t stand divorce in the family isn’t likely to want to find out about much more sordid stuff!

  2. My husband’s family always knew that their father had been married, briefly, before marrying their mother. But that’s all they knew. On the second marriage license, it stated her name was Ruth. The odds of finding the info was against me. Those who would have known were dead. I finally “stumbled” across it when hunting for my FIL on the site. I found a newspaper account of his annulment proceedings and it gave a full name for the wife. Turns out, it had been a whirlwind courtship, far from his home town. And the annulment was a year later. I personally think she just didn’t want to live with her mother-in-law, who ended up being a permanent resident of the family.

    1. Fulton is a FABULOUS site, ain’t it? I’ve recently been helping a friend whose family is from western New York and have uncovered A LOT of stuff her father didn’t know about his mom’s family. His mom didn’t talk much about her early years and upbringing and I wonder how much more is left to be told.

  3. Interesting story. I’m sure many of us have similar hidden secrets that will never be uncovered. I wish it had been easier to follow and understand this story. Is there a part missing? Starting with paragraph “Mom didn’t want to stress…” I got completely confused.

    1. So sorry to have confused you. No passage got left out, though I did try to keep this condensed for brevity.

      Briefly, once she knew of her existence, my mom was able to track down the identity and current hometown of her father’s first wife through public records. Then a friend who had connections in that community contacted the family and got information that wasn’t public knowledge, which she passed on to my mom. In that way, my mother was able to get most of the details about the “secret first wife” from the lady’s own family, rather than pumping my grandmother for everything she might know…which probably wasn’t too much in any case, plus she was pretty ill.

      But Mom did have to ask my grandmother, a few weeks prior to Grammy’s death, why no one had ever told her about her father’s first marriage. Evidently when Mom had started doing genealogy in the 1970s, my grandparents were holding their breath hoping she didn’t stumble upon records for Grampy’s secret first marriage…but since Mom thought she knew everything about her parents, it never occurred to her to search out records for other marriages! In retrospect, it all seems kind of silly, but I guess my grandparents figured that if their daughter knew, she would spill it to other members of the family (my grandmother’s mother lived to be 99, so she ended up having to keep the secret for a long time…and after that, I suppose it just seemed awkward to bring it up).

  4. I would not say that I discovered new secrets, but I found out the stories behind the secrets Our family was already aware of, and gotten a better idea of why the secret was hidden.

  5. Around 2001, a friend and I received emails from a woman claiming to be the gr-gr-dau of Friend’s maternal ggf – a real charmer – via a woman neither of us had ever heard of. “Impossible!”, we both said, as we’d already dug up every (we thought) document and scrap of info about the man. (He was no blood relation to me, but my great-aunt and her brother had married one of his sons and a dau.) Our rejection of the claim went on for a couple of years, until Friend decided to poke around in the county courthouse, where to our everlasting shock, she discovered not only a divorce decree (for desertion) granted to her gr-gm after 30-some years of marriage, but that the papers had been delivered to Gr-Grandpa in a town two states away where he’d been living in bigamous wedded bliss for almost a year. Married in a church ceremony, no less, attended by many residents of that town, most of whom (least of all the bride) had any idea he already had a wife and *many* children 600 miles away.

    This of course was back in the days before telephones, etc, when a 600-mile trip took a week or more on horseback, so he might as well have been living in a foreign country. He and not-legal wife #2 had produced a son, and the woman who’d contacted Friend and I was the son’s grand-dau. And even though the marriage wasn’t legal, non-wife #2 had to go through the humiliation of formally divorcing the cad.

    Several of Legal Wife’s cousins lived in the town – which is why he went there in the first place – and suspected all along that he still had a living wife. We never found out which of them finally ratted on him, but it’s the only way Legal Wife could’ve known where to send the divorce papers. A further twist – after divorcing him, she took him back, married him again (in the next county over), only to be deserted again a few years later (this time he went six states away!), so she divorced him AGAIN, and not a whisper of the scandal OR the first divorce and remarriage was ever mentioned in Friend’s or my family. You can’t make this stuff up!

    1. This is epic (though very sad that Legal Wife #1 had to go through the grief of divorcing the cad twice)!

  6. Secret comment:
    I’ve been researching by Brown (way too common of a name) for several years. I had a major brick wall for some time at my great-great grandpa Frank Brown generation. Frank Brown had no parents. Finally using a consultant, I was able to get through. Frank Brown’s father Weston was a wild Union soldier who went off to serve in the artillery. After his term he came home and “fell in the hay” with a young lassie Nancy Sawyer from the same town. That produced Frank Brown. Weston then went back off to war after properly marring Nancy. While I have not found a divorce record, Nancy subsequently remarried but kept Frank’s last name Brown. He was raised by his step-father. Weston wandered away and was buried in the military cemetery in San Francisco. To compound the mystery, Nancy’s name was obliterated in the following federal census and Frank’s name was listed on another line on the next page. Thus, I now have two more generations of Brown.

  7. I discovered that my great grandmother was pregnant when married first — to another person before she met my great grandfather. She divorced that man for desertion, drunkenness, threatening her life and non payment of support and married Nelson Bennett. Together they had four daughters, including Nelsie Bennett Davis,my grandmother.

  8. I discovered my grandparents were only married 5 months when their first child, my aunt, was born.

  9. I was researching my great-grandparents marriage when I discovered my great-grandfather’s divorce from a previous marriage. His first wife had died when his 2 sons were very young and we all thought he married my great-grandmother, who was a teacher at the orphanage where the boys were placed, as his 2nd wife. I have no way of knowing, but I speculate, based on ages and circumstances, that the actual second wife was simply too young to take on the responsibility of 2 young boys in 1885. I discovered she later married and had one child, many years after the divorce. My great-grandparents had 3 daughters, in addition to the 2 boys from the first marriage, and had 32 years together before my great-grandmother’s death from heart disease at age 61. I don’t know if my grandmother, or my father, knew of this 2nd marriage that ended in divorce since they pre-deceased my discovery. No one among the surviving family had ever heard of it and since no children resulted, I suppose my great-grandparents saw no reason to mention it.

  10. I discovered that my great grandfather on my father’s side (of Burlington, VT, Edward Willett Jr.,) was married to two women at the same time and they both survived him (Anna Casey Willett 1st wife whom I am descended from and Margaret Williams Willett of Jay NY). No one in the family had ever known about this until I started researching my genealogy.

  11. I was quite surprised a few years ago to find the marriage record of my grandmother’s Rose’s first husband Georgie Jereada — since nobody in our family had ever mentioned that our grandfather was in fact her second husband. So I showed dad the marriage record, and he thought for a few moments and then said, “I remember now my mom did tell me once that she’d been married before, but she didn’t say who he was and she said he didn’t live very long.” And indeed it wasn’t very long at all, and my young widowed grandmother then remarried about two years later to my grandfather. No children from her first marriage, 13 from her second. Grandma Rose died 17 years before I was born, so I never got the chance to meet her and can only imagine it must have been very painful to her and she decided not to talk about it.

  12. My grandfather was married twice. The first marriage was short lived. The second lasted 46 years until his death. He never told his second wife (my grandmother) about his first wife. Early in the marriage they were on a boat from New York NY to Fall River MA. A friend of my grandfathers family was talking with my grandmother and told her about the first marriage. My grandmother never let her husband know that she knew about his first marriage and he never told her about it. He never knew she new.

    1. Wow, a double secret!! I assume she told someone after your grandfather died, or else it would still be a secret that she knew his secret.

  13. I spent many years looking for the birth of my grandmother in Germany and for her parents’ marriage, to no avail. I knew they had met in Germany and later emigrated, living for a time in Hoboken NJ and then in Chicago. Then one day I found a link to Chicago marriage records and discovered my great-grandparents marriage in Chicago, when their child, my grandmother, was two years old! I later found out my g-grandmother, Maria, worked as a cook in the household of her eventual husband’s family! Now I wonder whether the son seduced her, or even whether he raped her. The entire family emigrated shortly after my grandmother was born, but Maria stayed behind until the infant was 9 months old, then followed them with the baby. As I said, eventually they married, but it was not a happy marriage. They later separated. They never divorced but my great-grandfather married someone else and had another child. Maria moved back to Hoboken and told everyone she was a widow.

  14. Biggest sem-secret I’ve found is out in the cousins. Albion Davis Pike (b. 1886 Lubec, Maine) was a Harvard student in 1907. His academics were sub-par, and a/the dean summoned him, whereupon he went back to his rooms, packed his belongings, withdrew $150 from a bank, and left Cambridge. The family never heard of him again, hiring the Pinkerton detective agency to look for him both domestically and internationally. In the latter part of 1907, a young man resembling his description was peddling soap in Dansville, Kentucky. That young man immediately disappeared upon being asked if he was Pike.

    He may have been trying to emulate an uncle who had run off to sea in 1868, disappeared for 6 years, and returned once he was captain of a two-masted sailing vessel.

    Unsurprisingly, I haven’t succeeded in finding out this secret any more than his contemporaries did.

  15. My family secret is this: Many years ago when I first dabbled in genealogy I found an account of my mother’s family in an appendix to Edith Dunbar’s genealogical work on Simeon Ide. My grandfather was Lewis Ide, my grandmother Mary Feeney. That listing in Dunbar had my grandparents marriage in 1919 and the older daughter without a birth date. At that time my mother’s comment was a laugh and “Oh, that date must be wrong. It would make Aunt Marguerite illegitimate.” Actually it would make them both illegitimate! It was much later that I started more serious work on family history and saw the two official records of the marriage with the 1919 date. About two years before my mother died I received both civil and church (R.C.) records of her parents marriage in 1919 in Providence, RI. My mother was born in 1916 and her older sister in 1915. This may have been a secret even from the two sisters who had never mentioned anything like this. My mother was in poor health when I found the records and thought the world of her parents. I think would have had a hard time handling her illegitimacy, so I never told her what I’d found. After her death I shared the info with my cousins and sisters.

    I later saw the 1915 RI state census where information supplied was to have been as of May 1, 1915. My grandmother was listed with her family and with maiden name, my grandfather with his family. About three weeks later my aunt, the elder daughter, was born at the Providence Lying-In Hospital. I have no idea what caused the delay in marrying, but I’d love to find out!

  16. I am a descendant of James Sylvanus Phillip Christy through my mother. We took a trip to Yacolt a few years back with some of the extended family and toured the Historical Society Museum there. Is it possible we related to you in some way?

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