Question: I have an ancestor (Sarah Wagoner) that is listed as living with J.G. Thompson as a “servant/concubine” on the 1880, Henderson County, North Carolina census. However, another census lists her as the wife of James Thompson. What exactly does “servant/concubine” mean? Was it common practice? I appreciate any help you can give me on this. Thanks, Nancy
Answer: Being listed as a servant/concubine was not common, but it did happen. The next question I have is why aren’t James and Sarah married? They are both listed as widowed or divorced. Is something standing in their way? There could be a variety of reasons, but first let’s look at the data.
I located Sarah and James first in 1880, and saw the image you mentioned. The “occupation” concubine suggests that were more than an employer and a servant.
By 1900 they appear to have been married
Also in 1900, Sarah states the number of years that she has been married is 25, and James has two entries, 25 and 55. If James and Sarah had been married 25 years, then they would have been married in 1875, but the 1880 census says otherwise.
Digging back into 1870, Sarah and James are listed in the same household but as two separate families. Also, notice that Sarah has two groups of children. George, Mary and Manson were all born between 1855 – 1858. Martha, Robert and John were all born between 1866 and 1870. Do these children have a different fathers or a father who has died within the last year? Was it the same father and was he fighting in the Civil War?
The “concubine” status in 1880 and the living situation in 1870 suggests that they were living possibly in something similar to a common law marriage or at least that they were more intimate than just a servant/employer relationship. Or maybe in 1870 they were simply employer and servant and it grew to something else over time. But why would they not have been married?
A first thought is that Sarah is the widow of a Civil War veteran and wants to keep her widow’s pension. But according to archives.gov, North Carolina did not grant pensions to widows until 1885.
Looking at 1860, Sarah and her children are living with Eli Wagoner who is most likely her spouse.
We find Eli serving in the 64th North Carolina Infantry for the Confederates. We find that he was captured in 1863 and held for a few weeks as a prisoner of war in 1863.
But when we look at his service records on Fold3, it appears that while he was discharged from Louisville, it was just to be transferred to Camp Douglas in Illinois. He was not discharged from that POW camp until 1865.
So where was he in 1870? I did not locate him in the mortality records or the 1870 census elsewhere. Did he die and maybe there was some provision in a will that only left his estate to Sarah if she did not remarry. A quick look for a will for Eli in Henderson County turned up nothing.
Or did he just not come back, leaving Sarah and their children to fend for themselves? And if he didn’t come back, who was Martha, Robert Lee and John father?
What you have is a nice little mystery on your hands. Henderson County, North Carolina, did not start keeping death records until 1913. You may want to do a more thorough look through court records to see if Eli left some sort of estate behind and if there are clues in there. Also, follow the trail of Eli’s parents. Did either of them leave a will and part of an estate to Sarah?
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.