1866: The final rift between Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee

Sepia Saturday 475: Fourth in a series on the odd 1860 separation of my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — a summertime census mystery.

Discovering that my great-great-great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee lived separately during the 1860 U.S. Census sent me searching for answers.

Was this a temporary situation? Were economic factors involved? What could explain this odd anomaly? https://pixabay.com/photos/stress-stressed-frayed-torn-pulled-2061408/

I was looking for all sorts of circumstantial evidence to explain the Blakeslees’ separation. What I never expected to find was a permanent rift between my great-great-great-grandparents.

So imagine my surprise when a random search for “Zebulon Blakeslee” in a digital Pennsylvania newspaper archive turned up the following announcement in the 28 Aug. 1866 issue of the Montrose Democrat!

http://panewsarchive.psu.edu/lccn/sn84026112/1866-08-28/ed-1/seq-3/#city=Montrose&rows=20&proxtext=Zebulon+Blakeslee&searchType=basic&sequence=0&index=0&words=Blakeslee+Zebulon&page=1
Montrose Democrat, 28 Aug. 1866, p. 3. Source: panewsarchive.psu.edu

The Blakeslee divorce

Wait…what? Divorced? I could hardly believe my eyes. But there it was in black and white — the solution to my Blakeslee mystery — decreed by the court and published in the newspaper for all to see.

Although divorce is now a socially accepted way to end a marriage, the Blakeslee’s final rift had to be a much bigger deal in 1866.

Once I adjusted to this new reality, I wondered where I could find out more about my ancestors’ divorce — and whether court records might be available.

A few calls to the Susquehanna County Historical Society and the county courthouse gave me the answer: Yes, and accessing them in person would be best.

So I will soon be headed to Montrose, Penna., to see what I can find. Stay tuned for future posts on the results of that trip.

Mysteries within a mystery

Meanwhile, I was particularly blown away to discover the Blakeslees’ divorce because my previous research implied that Zebulon had died and left Hannah a widow.

My great-great-great grandmother Hannah repeatedly referred to herself as a widow in post-1866 census and other records — and she is listed as “widowed” on her 1888 death certificate.

Even her tombstone refers to her as the “Wife of Zebulon Blakeslee.” (Although I have long suspected that something was amiss, because Zebulon is not buried with her.)

Had Hannah simply created a more acceptable public cover story for herself to obscure her years of separation from Zebulon and their ultimate divorce? One source suggests that keeping silent about marital disruption was not uncommon:

Divorce and widowhood are two relatively public ways that a marriage can end. For a long time in American history, they have been subject to at least some level of public record keeping…Overwhelming historical evidence suggests, however, that many marriages ended long before the coroner or the divorce judge became involved and that frequently, both parties had their reasons to keep silent about their marital disruption.1

The Blakeslee story comes together

Thus ends the mystery of the Blakesees’ 1860 separation. And once again, genealogy research delivers the unexpected!

Yet learning of my Blakeslee ancestors’ divorce has also brought disparate pieces of their story together in a way that finally makes sense.

There will be more on this in the next post — particularly how Hannah and Zebulon lived their separate lives after the divorce was granted.

Up next: Epilogue to the Blakeslees’ divorce. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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21 thoughts on “1866: The final rift between Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee”

    1. In this case, it seems like moving away from where they were known helped Zeb and Hannah keep word of their divorce quiet. It was in the paper, yes, but unlike today’s instant news, memory of the short announcement probably faded over time.

  1. I have come across a couple of instances in my research where man and wife were listed in census returns in different households. Of course this could be perfectly innocent with one partner being a genuine visitor on census night. But what a startling discovery, thanks to the availability of online newspapers! I now use them as a standard research tool, as you never know what you might find. I was doing research for my cousin, and found a court report on his grandfather, charged with failing to, support his wife and family, with the partners living at different addresses.

    1. At first I thought it was census taker error, too. So great that digitized newspapers allow for a wider search of possible circumstances — I have also added them to my genealogy toolbox.

  2. Divorce was uncommon and expensive. In my experience people treated themselves as unmarried afterwards but perhaps harder if there are children so widowed is an easier explanation.

    1. Excellent point. Even though the U.S. divorce rate creeped up in the later 1800s, the rate was still only about 3 per 1,000 marriages — rare enough that “widowhood” might have been the preferable social cover for women with families.

  3. It’s not often that genealogy research uncovers a soap opera melodrama. And solving one mystery only brings new questions about another enigma. Could Zebulon’s divorce mean remarriage? Maybe undiscovered cousins?

    I have a long story I hope to write someday about cdv photos of a Union soldier who lost an arm in the war. He was a private in a New York regiment, and in the 1870s he divorced his wife and moved west to the Dakota territory. But In 1907 he made newspaper reports around the country as the “old colonel” who returned to NY after 28 years to marry her a second time! After the divorce both had remarried but their spouses had later died, so it was a story of love rekindled.

    1. Yes, this outcome was as much a surprise to me as to my readers — especially since I began this series on my Blakeslee ancestors not knowing what to expect and made the discovery during the writing! The love story of the Union soldier and his wife would make a great series. Why not serialize it on our blog?

  4. Fascinating and surprising story. My great grandfather deserted my great grandmother after the 8th child was born. What a heel! Desertion was common and often called “Irish divorce.”

    This would have been in the early 20th century before WWI.

    1. Wow, now unfortunate for your great grandmother! My ggg grandmother Hannah had a better go of it, since she only had two grown daughters, both married, who took her in.

  5. My grandmother divorced her first husband in the early 1940s, married a second husband who passed away some years later, and several years after that met and remarried her first husband. Family history can be very interesting! 🙂

  6. One of my great-grandaunts divorced in 1914 but is enumerated as a widow the rest of her life. Even her obituary refers to her as a widow. Have you heard the term “grass widow”? I was introduced to that word by a former Sepian. It has several meanings including a divorced woman, so I wonder if the term was just shortened. While being a widow was more socially acceptable than being a divorcee, everyone would know the truth, especially if the man lived nearby. Only on a legal document could someone claim to be a widow if they weren’t, but no one would see it.

    1. Fortunately for my ggg grandmother Hannah, her ex stayed behind in Susquehanna County, Penna. while she relocated to New York State — not too far from the Penna. border, but probably far enough for her widowhood to seem plausible!

  7. Well, that was a surprise! I have found relatives during that time period passing as widows when their ex was living somewhere with a second wife.

  8. Ah, my curiosity is sated, at least for now. Sorry to hear about the marriage ending in divorce. I guess your ggg grandmother would have preferred to be treated as a widow.

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