Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on August 2, 2013 in Ask Ancestry Anne

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, 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?

Happy Searching!


Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at She is an active blogger on 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. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.


  1. Bonnie

    It would be helpful to estimate the amount of time it took to gather this evidence. Even knowing the likely sources, it would be useful information.

  2. Denese

    I also have an ancestor Rachel Jones whose relationship is listed as concubine to William Dicks on the 1880 Louisiana Federal Census. She was black and gg-grandfather was white. They were not allowed to marry in Louisiana at the time.

    My problem is tracing William Dicks (b. 1818 according to 1880 census) from his birthplace of North Carolina to Louisiana.

  3. Suzanne

    Were they possibly of different races? I read some old cases while practicing law in Louisiana. A “concubine” was usually the mistress or consort of a white man. Definitely, the term means a woman who was the sexual partner of the man, understood to be on some long term basis, not a one-night-stand. Here I suggest they were living as man and wife and there was a barrier to their marriage later resolved. It could be that her husband wasn’t declared dead at the time of the earlier censuses, or as I mentioned a racial barrier. In either case, it seems to have been removed for the later census, or the terminology officially abandoned. Many men did not return to their previous homes after the Civil War was over, whether deceased or not, leaving their abandoned wives in limbo, unable to remarry or to claim their pension — a most unfortunate situation. It seems this woman perhaps managed to circumvent the problem with a new relationship.

    Very interesting post.

  4. Roxie Moreland

    I had a relative that showed up on a census with an occupation of “harlot” It was during the Civil War and she was a widow. Not the most desirable occupation but you have to do what you have to do to keep body and soul together.

  5. Millie Stephens Brown

    When we lived in Greenfield, TN there were markers on graves that said concubine of…….. I always figured they were living together unmarried or ladies of color. Why would they put it on their tombstones.

  6. Ancestry Anne

    A few answers:

    1) Bonnie, it took about 5 to 6 hours to gather and look through the evidence. I started with the census records and developed a hypothesis and went from there.
    2) Denese, start with the last known record and move backwards step by step. Make sure you look carefully at each record before moving on.
    3) Suzanne, I thought the same thing, that maybe they were of different races, but I didn’t see any evidence to suggest that. That said, it still could be true.
    4) Roxie, you are my kind of researcher. It is what it is, and we can’t change the past. And if that is how your ancestress survived, so be it.
    5) Millie, was it concubine or consort? Consort was another word that was used for wife, meaning that the husband was still living at the time of the wife’s death. If it said concubine, then you are likely correct.
    6) Pam, great resource! Thanks!

  7. Robin Shay

    The census lists Sarah’s race as white. She and James were probably just living together as man and wife, but not married for some unknown reason.

  8. V. Nichols

    I was scouring through census records of a mining town up in northern Arizona, looking for my grandmother, and ran across a woman’s occupation listed as “prostitute”. It was not my grandmother but I found that interesting. The census taker may have known her occupation or maybe she was just honest about telling him what she did to survive.

  9. Ardith Richards

    My grgrgrandfather was a circuit rider preacher in Michigan. Some places he only got to once a year. Since there was no one else to solemnize a marriage a lot of people just didn’t get married. Common law was accepted when you lived 20 miles by foot from the nearest civilization.

  10. Richard

    Perhaps Sarah simply did not remarry because she didn’t know what had become of Eli and was waiting for him to return– well, not waiting, but at least not remarrying. When it became apparent that he wasn’t coming back she admitted this to herself and married James. She could then have claimed (that’s not really the word I want, rather, more like acknowledged) that they had been living as if they had been man and wife all along.

  11. Alicia

    Thank you for sharing your process on this interesting research project! I would like to know more about how one goes about looking into court records – especially if you don’t live in the area where you need to look. Are these records available online?

  12. Clair Wilson

    My first thought that she wasn’t white. I might say otherwise because she was light enough to look so. Answering that question otherwise in the same household was not likely. Maybe she identified as a mulatto, but the assumption may have been made by the census-taker. The assumption of concubine sounds like a prejudice of the taker against unmarried couples and the like. You wonder if he was having a very bad day or there was unrest at home.

  13. Marie Blocher

    I noticed that the three younger children from the 1870 census were not living with her in 1880, yet they were too young to be on their own. Since relationships were not given in the 1870 census, it is possible that the younger children were orphaned nieces and nephew that were later claimed by closer kin. I’d check court records far any guardianship assigned for them.
    As for Sarah and James, he could very well have started out as a boarder in her house. Lots of women had to take in roomers or boarders to make ends meet while their husbands were at war. It could be the husband came back after he was finally released, found his wife with another man, and left the area. It would have taken some time for the court to declare him legally dead so she could remarry. And if he filed for divorce, it would have taken some time for the case to be heard and the divorce granted. I’d check the court records for both of those cases. And I’d check 1880 census for any sign of Eli living anywhere in the USA.

  14. Marilyn Steber

    About the prostitute in Arizona, I recommend reading Hell’s Belles of Tombstone.
    The historian/author rescued old records with pictures of entertainers and so forth–women who may not have been “Soiled Doves”, but were transcients, therefore, I suppose were suspect.
    The Bird Cage theater drew many entertainers, including some whose names you’d recognize. I was looking for my g-g-grandmother who was on the stage, and got all excited when I found one who might have been she, but my ancestor sang light opera. The one I found had the same first name, but swung from a swing attached to the ceiling!

  15. Patricia Dick

    My grandfather Robert Wm Dick was born in Scotland in 1898/1899. I do not know when he came to American but did marry Mary Agnes Hart – she is from New York and of Irish decent. I recently found his grave after 46 years along with his sons, James Bernarad and Donald and his infant son. I know he resided in Massachusettes, New Jersey and New York but moved to Mountville, PA (where they are buried). I was wondering if youo could find dates on his coming to America and when he got married and where she died and buried. Please…..

    Thank you very much.

  16. Kate Halleron

    A little info I have, I don’t know if it will help – Eli was in the 64th NC Infantry, which was the regiment involved in the Shelton Laurel Massacre, although which specific members were involved is not known.

    Quite a few members of this regiment after being captured were recruited into the Union Army from the Louisville military prison. I’ve documented 20 such members who were in my gg-grandfather’s regiment, the 13th TN Cavalry (USA). There were at least 50 members of his company (including himself) who were former Confederates.

    There is a regimental history of the NC CSA regiments online at You might see if you can find anything there, or see if Eli received a pension.

    This is a fascinating mystery!

  17. Victoria McCoy

    Thanks for the clarification on the term “consort.” One of my female ancestors is listed as a male’s “consort” in family Bible records. I was aware of the term being used for the spouse of a reigning monarch (i.e., Prince Phillip being the Queen’s Consort), but wasn’t sure for “common folk” if it also meant a spouse. I appreciate the info!

  18. Caroline Gurkweitz

    This article and the comments are very interesting. I’m especially interested in the post Civil War time period. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like a divorce would have been tough to get and carry heavy stigma. So did couples just walk away from a marriage and marry someone else? I can see that happening if it was a common law marriage, but not if a marriage record exists. And I really get to wondering when there was children and property in the first marriage.

  19. Joyce Russell

    When should we accurately use USA or United States. I thought after 1776 would be more accurate, as before they were colonies or settlements.

  20. Samantha Rutherford

    I have an ancestor named Griffin Craft who married an Alice Washington. In a book at home and some very few sites claim that she is to be the sister of President George Washington and daughter of Augustine Washington. Is there a way to truly prove that or not. I can’t go any farther than Griffin.

  21. I’m not sure what you want…website? where would you go when you hit a wall to find your grandmothers parents? The last mention of her is her marriage liecense Sept 1910 in execelsior springs, clay city, mo. Her name is Anna Minerva blayney nee Grass born 24 april 1895, died 14 Feb 1972 I am not accomplished at the computer or finding my way around programs but have a strong desire to locate her.. she was a wonderful grandmother. Thanks for any help you can give me.

  22. Dear Anne,
    I have been trying to find the death date of my great grandfather, Jose Antonio Spat for the last year. I know it had to have been between 1919 and 1928. He died in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. I have asked relatives and have been looking at Family research documents and no luck. Do you have any other suggestions? I appreciate any help you can give me.
    Aida MuellePS I am a member of

  23. Linda

    Dear Anne,
    I have been looking for my Grandmothers parents and have had no luck at all.I can’t find any info.even on my grandmother I been told that they didn’t keep birth records back in 1901.any info would be greatful.

  24. Claire

    “Widow” does not always mean the spouse has died. It can mean a “grass widow”–someone who is separated or deserted. I have come across this occasionally in the census, and also remember people of my grandmother’s generation (born in the 1890s) referring to divorce/deserted/separated women as widows. They may have been unable to marry because there was a spouse still living. Also, the fact that she is listed as a wife later does not necessarily mean they were legally married.

    It strikes me as rather snarky that the census taker took it upon himself to add that “concubine” to the record. It would be interesting to look at who he was, where he lived in relation to this couple, and whether he made other such judgments about the people he was enumerating.

  25. This has been fantastic reading all 27 comments at this time. Many good points and suggestions made between and among researchers. My word of question is ‘Native/Native American’ relating to Census in New Brunswick/Maine 1860 census. Having an immediate “wow” for my gr gr gr grandmother, I asked a local, New Brunswick, researcher what the term actually meant. He informed me that ‘native’ is not Native American/Historical Inhabitants. It meant that the person had lived in that specific area most, if not all, of their life. So, this stopped me from starting a new research project for our family. Dear Linda, to comment on your question regarding your gr grandparents and 1901 – it depends on which state, county and city you are referring to in your search. This is not categorically true of all places. Unless your message was shortened by Ancestry, you also need to give specific details. I work as a staff librarian at a Family History Library in CA. Many patrons come in with minimal information expecting good search results. My best to you in your search.

  26. June Higgins

    Just got to reading this interesting blog and fascinating research process. Thanks, A Anne. Thanks for interesting comments also from everyone. I have not personally come across concubine in the occupations columns of the censuses, but I have found some “idiots” who were neighbors. One wonders how presumptuous the census takers were sometimes, perhaps deciding on their own what to call someone.

  27. Dear Anne,
    I was just wondering, you said you have relatives from Virginia – my grandfather came from Virginia, his name was Edward Marion Gillespie. He died in LAS Animas, Colorado in 1934, when I was about 2.

  28. Judie Ann Pichon Heckel

    I also have Mitchell as the last name of my mother’s grandfather. Some-one has traced them back to John M & Lavinia West from Virginia, Chesterfield county. I have a lot of info on their offspring (MITCHELL) if you are interested.

  29. Might the term “concubine” have been used when there were acknowledged or generally known children of the relationship? By “generally known” I mean small localities where the children have been known to the neighbors since birth, and therefore aren’t orphans and probably not dependent upon, say, county relief. Barring children and miscegenation laws, can’t see why the term would be used. Why not “housekeeper”? My searching has been extensive, but confined to Massachusetts records. I’ve never seen “concubine” used. Perhaps a state historian can reference laws that refer to concubines?

  30. Carl Burkhead

    My g-grandfather,Joseph George Cloven, married Elizabeth Ferguson, 9-14-1873 in Greene County,. Illinois. That is the first written record I have been able to locate. In the 1880 census he stated he was born in Illinois and his father (Oscar Cloven?) was born in New York. Why would neiher of them show up in a census before 1880.

  31. Mary Rowe

    When my great grandparents weren’t always listed together in census records, I was determined to find out why. I knew my great grandfather had served in the 9th Iowa cavalry during the Civil War. I ordered his military records from the National Archives – expensive but worth the investment. My great parents married in 1868. It wasn’t long before he became abusive. After a few years and two children, she divorced him and left their home in Iowa. He followed her to Pennsylvania and persuaded her to marry him again. They returned to Iowa. In time he again took up his abusive ways. Sometimes they lived together and sometimes they didn’t. He finally deserted her and went to Arkansas where he had been awarded a land grant. Great grandmother applied to the federal military pension board for half of great grandfather’s military pension. He fought her claim but she won. There is no way I would ever have learned about their sad lives without the records from the National Archives.

  32. Valerie Houle

    We ALL have such interesting family history with many unexpected turns and mysteries. I know about my paternal side of my family dating all the way back to 1563, but I cannot find my maternal side. I only found a census back in 1940 that states my mothers father and her mother along with (1) of my mothers younger brothers. The census states that my mother’s father William Francis Vargo was born in Pennsylvania and her mother, Katharine Helen Vargo was born in St. Louis, Missouri. I was told her father was of Czech decent and her mother of Polish. What I know her mothers maiden name was spelled Proach but sounds like Porack. My mother believes her parents were the first born Americans but her grandparents came from the so called “Old Country”. They lived in Ohio when I found the 1940 census, my mother was about 5 yrs. The only Vargos I have found so far came out of Hungary. How can I look into finding that side of my ancestry?

  33. B.Carter Pate

    We need to recall that the Census does not tell the whole story,especially when the information is given by a neighbor who doesn’t know the family very well. Another possible explanation: My great, great uncle, who was a Civil War vet., whose first wife died early, leaving several dependent children. He arranged for a lady to care for his household and the children. They later decided to marry. When he died about 1908, she applied in Texas for a Civil War widow’s pension and it was granted. Second marriages in the nineteenth Century and earlier often came about in this way. Such a “marriage of convenience” would be quite socially accetable in many cases. B.Carter Pate,

  34. Cathy ettorre

    The term”idiot” in the census records is not generally regarded as a mean spirited, derogatory comment as it is so often used today. It was the “legal” or accepted terminology of the times to describe a person who was mentally retarded or mentally damaged in some way. Either from birth or otherwise. It was treated simply as a fact and used in the census records right along side “can you read or write English”, “what grade did you finish in school”, are you deaf, dumb, etc. If someone is listed by the census taker as “idiot” it most certainly refers to some form of mental illness.

  35. Rent the movie named “Heartland” starring Rip Torn and Conchitta Ferrell. It wil give you a good picture of this situation. Conchitta was his housekeeper but the census taker could have put anything. She later married him. Very good and historically accurate.

  36. Regina Madlem

    If this were a case in which I were involved, I would find the children’s deth certificates, if possible, to see who is listed as their father on that document. While not necessarily conclusive, it might provide additional information that would answer many of the questions posed here regarding Sarah, Eli, and James.

  37. Regina Madlem

    We must remember that the information contained in census documents (as well as death certificates) is being provided under many different circumstances, and by whomever was available in the household or neighborhood to provide the information. Since the census taker was arriving during the course of the working day, anyone who would be employed or in school was not available to provide the information. So it was frequently given by young siblings just old enough to speak, caregivers, uneducated spouses, healthcare workers, handymen, neighbors, etc., not necessarily the individuals themselves. The quality of the information recorded was only as accurate as the information provided.

    In one instance of my research, it was very evident that the provider of information in one very large family had an obvious speech impediment, causing each and every name to be recorded in some hilariously mangled manner. I have also found an occasional census that had, in my opinion, been recorded by a man who obviously had a hearing problem, as most of the names in his entire collection was recorded with recurring errors explained only logically by that conclusion.

    There were always many individuals throughout history who were so distrustful of any attempt by the government to collect even the most rudimentary information on them, they adamantly refused to answer census takers questions, or simply turned the dogs or shotguns on them, so that no information is available on that particular person, or persons, especially if they felt any of their personal activities could become suspect. Coming from Kentucky lineage, I can attest to families who feared census information could be used to collect “revenue” (taxes), or shut down illegal distillery operations (moon shining), or cost them “rations” or pensions if someone told that grandpa was not living with them anymore.

    We must also take into account that verbiage from over a hundred years ago does not mean the same thing as it does today, so researching terminology from the past and applying it under those terms is necessary in order to get a complete picture of a certain situation. We must also realize that this was not a projection of personal opinion, but the norm for the times, as well as geographical location. These census takers were trained and given guidelines before they ventured out into communities, so were simply following instructions.

    I can’t imagine a more tedious job, at the time!

  38. Leslie Haley

    Aloha, I was adopted in 1964(b1963), and brought to hawaii, I have found my birth mother who has long since passed and would like to find my father , my parents were not married to each other, my mother worked for my father, I figure I should try to find where she worked at that time, how should I do that? MahaloI for your help:)

  39. Ann Percha

    My dad’s paternal side of the family is really a mess. For instance, his father was told(by his father)that when he, meaning my granddad, was 5 or 6 years old, his mother had another baby boy, Robert. A few days after Robert’s birth, his mother took Robert and disappeared. His father would never tell him his mother’s name, just that she loved Robert more than she loved Bill. Granddad never tried to find his mother, but when he grew up he tried to find Robert. This was long before the days of computers. It was impossible for him to find Robert Mills. I found out in 1991 that it wasn’t his mother who left, taking the baby. It was his father who left, taking Granddad. And Granddad’s brother’s name was not Robert. It was Loranzy. A lie his father told to keep him from finding his brother or mother. What I really need help with, though, is the name of my g g grandmother. The mother of the horrible man who would lie to his own child. I know that her 1st name was Rebecca. And that she was married to William Mills. But, there are so many disagreements about this woman. And, actually William, himself, too. Some people say that she was Rebecca Stancell/Stansel. Others claim that no, this Rebecca was Rebecca Jane Brooks. I have found wedding licenses for both Rebeccas to have married William Millses. Will you please explain how I can be sure which William and which Rebecca are MY ancestors? I have been working on this family since I was 14, always getting distracted by other branches of the family tree and even by nature. but, now that my 2nd grandchild is due in a few weeks, I need to get this in gear.

  40. Paula Tillman

    I have been searching for information on my great great grandmother, Kate Brown Golding for years now. In the past year or so that I have been a member of ancestry, I have found a few census records that have listed her and my great great grandfather, Henry Golding/Golden and their two children Walter and Fred living in Maine. Unfortunately, none of the available records (marriage, death) tells me anything further about where she came from. I don’t know the names of her parents, only that she was from Canada (someone guessed on the death certificate and said Ontario or Quebec). Kate Brown is such a common name (I have also tried Catherine Brown) that I have a hard time knowing if it is my GG grandmother. I have searched both Quebec and Ontario census records and I found someone who could be her, who was a servant living in Hamilton, Ontario. What is even more frustrating is that census records, death record, and tombstone dates don’t match. I have no exact date of birth for her, but piecing it together I believe that she was born sometime between 1849-1853. She died 7/3/1907 in Gray, ME but she has no obituary. I also could not find any birth records for Walter or Fred, who were both born in Pownal, ME. Walter is my great grandfather and he was born in Jan of 1882. My great great grandfather, Henry was born in England in 1845 and came to the states in 1871 via Boston. Henry and Kate were married in Freeport, ME in a civil ceremony and they did not have a marriage certificate, just a short declaration of marriage in a book of marriages. Any suggestions, I would be grateful! She is truly my brick wall!


  41. Benson Jones

    I have been unable to locate the grave of my ancestor Nimrod Moore, born in Maryland in 1775, moved to Rockingham, NC and then to Grayson or Carroll County, Virginia about 1805. I want to place a grave marker before I am unable to do so. Please help.

  42. JAD

    If your brick wall ancestor was from the south, known for using double names i.e. Billy Bob, Mary Sue, etc. you might try checking for use of the middle name as the leading one. One of our gfathers Joseph Goodman Younger, who served in the Civil War where there must have been thousands of Josephs, apparently went by the name Goodman even after the war and his relocation to Tennessee. So much so, in fact, that when we finally found his grave the stone said G. J. Younger.

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