Barbara’s story

When I began researching my paternal ancestors as a high school student, I had many questions about Barbara Shakshober, the oldest sister of my great-great-grandfather, Jacob Shakshober. Because the 1860 and 1870 censuses report her birthplace as New York,[1] I concluded she must have been born in or near New York City, her parents’ port of arrival to the United States. Finding Barbara’s birthplace might lead to the discovery of her parents’ neighborhood, and perhaps other ancestors with their elusive, often corrupted surname.

The Shakshobers had moved to Arlington, Bennington County, Vermont, by 1860, where the family was composed of John, his wife Anna Maria, and their children Barbara, age 6; Lydia, age 5; John, age 3; and Mary, age 1. Barbara married Theodore Gaul, a jeweler, in Arlington on 16 January 1876.[2] Their original marriage record does provide a New York City birthplace for both parties. A son, Ralph Gaul, was born in Arlington six months later.[3] By 1880, Barbara Gaul was living apart from her husband in Seymour, New Haven County, Connecticut, working as a milliner—her profession prior to her marriage—and boarding with “Clara Schockober,” age 19, also employed in millinery.[4] I assumed Barbara had merely separated from her husband. In 1920 and 1930, she lived with her son Ralph and his family in Bennington, Vermont, possibly indicating her husband had died.[5]

As a college student, I made a few trips to the Vermont State Archives and the Vermont Historical Society to research the Shakshobers in general, but never Barbara in particular. On one of those trips, however, an astute archivist suggested I check the divorce docket books to learn whether Barbara Shakshober and Theodore Gaul formally divorced.

[She] left him for “his willfully deserting her and ever since refusing to live with her or provide for her support.”

Barbara Gaul appeared in Bennington County Court in March 1879, stating she had cohabited with her husband from the date of their marriage on 16 January until 15 February 1876, when she left him for “his willfully deserting her and ever since refusing to live with her or provide for her support.” The court dismissed her petition for divorce in the June term of 1879. But the following year, Theodore Gaul initiated divorce proceedings against Barbara Gaul for the same cause. He stated the couple had lived at the home of Barbara’s mother in Arlington for three or four weeks when his own mother fell ill.

After he returned from tending to his mother, Barbara announced she would no longer live with him. A relative of Barbara’s testified that she had been forced to marry him; “would never live with him a day” and would “rather beg” than live as his wife. To her credit, Barbara’s mother Anna “would not let [Barbara] live with him [;] that she did not like him.” Turned out of the Shakshober home, Theodore went to stay at a local boarding house where he had lived in his bachelor days. The court granted his petition for divorce in the December term of 1880.[6]

I had initially been interested in Barbara Shakshober as a key to my German origins. In high school, I contacted the New York City Municipal Archives to request her birth record, but no record was found. Yet the Gaul divorce file reveals the significance of Barbara’s story in its own right: a nineteenth-century young woman born to immigrant parents, compelled to marry for the sake of her unborn child. It hints at the working woman she would become and the strength of her relationship with her only child, Ralph. Barbara passed her final years in the home of her youngest sister Sybilla Phillips, at whose home she died on 29 November 1934.[7]


[1] 1860 United States Federal Census, Arlington, Bennington Co., Vermont; dwelling 1126, family 1156; household of John Shakshober; image 8/34; 1870 United States Federal Census, Arlington; dwelling 154, family 152; household of John Starkthohie; image 18/42.

[2] Vermont, U.S., Vital Records, 1720-1908, Marriage of Theodore Gaul and Barbara Schockober; Arlington, Bennington Co., Vermont; 16 January 1876 [p. 120].

[3] Vermont, U.S., Vital Records, 1720-1908, Birth of Ralph Gaul; Arlington, Bennington Co., Vermont; 17 April 1876 [p. 143].

[4] 1880 United States Federal Census, Seymour, New Haven Co., Connecticut; dwelling 60, family 70; household of Charles D. Kelsey; image 6/47.

[5] 1920 United States Federal Census, Bennington, Bennington Co., Vermont; 15 Bank Street, dwelling 89, family 95; household of Ralph Gore; image 18/33; 1930 United States Federal Census, Bennington; dwelling 54, family 61; household of Ralph Gaul; image 5/19.

[6] Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, 1:12 Divorces F31805, 2: 63.

[7] Vermont, U.S., Vital Records, 1720-1908, Death of Barbara Gaul; North Bennington, Bennington Co., Vermont; 29 November 1934 [No. 167].

About Jennifer Shakshober

Jen Shakshober earned a dual BA in English and Economics from Westfield State University, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bennington College, and a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University. She is currently pursuing an MLIS in Archives Management from Simmons University. Her past research has involved nineteenth and twentieth-century Vermont records from local and state-level repositories. Most recently she wrote two articles about the murder of labor organizer Joseph Shoemaker for The Walloomsack Review, a biannual publication of the Bennington (Vt.) Museum, and she is always interested in crafting narrative genealogical reports.

6 thoughts on “Barbara’s story

  1. Very interesting story, Jen. Showing, again, we never know what we will come across as we research our family history.

  2. Brava Jen on a well reasoned and written genealogical story. Do you have a plan to write about your great aunt Mary? As we know, what an interesting story she had while librarian at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro during WWI

  3. This kind of story, where she was “forced” to marry him (because of pregnancy), does make me wonder if he forced himself on her in other ways. The strong dislike both she and her mother had for him makes him sound somewhat unsavory,

  4. The double standard for divorce is evident in this account. Why was he granted the divorce and not her?

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