His answer to a simple question

Posted for the meme Genealogy Blog Party hosted by Elizabeth O’Neal of Little Bytes of Life. September’s theme is “Back-to-School” and invites posts discussing essential genealogical lessons.

My maternal aunt, Dolores [surname withheld], and Leland E [surname withheld] were married in McLean County, North Dakota, in December 1975. According to their marriage record, Leland E was 49 years old at the time, meaning he was born in approximately 1926. Significantly, their marriage license indicates that Leland was never previously divorced. That detail prompted what has become a fortnight’s-long adventure into the genealogy of two large families with, as far as I can tell, a single contact within (i.e., Dolores and Leland E) my maternal family tree.


A search of find-a-grave.com yielded one listing for a Leland E [surname withheld], and, sure enough, that person’s details (e.g., age, location) were remarkably similar to what I expected for my Leland E, but the posting indicated this Leland E was married to someone other than my aunt, and that the couple were parents to five children. This discovery nearly convinced me that my Leland E was a different person than the one memorialized at find-a-grave, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up. [I failed twice here: (1) I did not query related surnames within the same cemetery and (2) once I did, I didn’t immediately recognize the much earlier death of a possible spouse compared to when my Leland E died.]

My next step was to order a copy of Leland E’s death certificate, hoping it would list my aunt as spouse/next of kin. That turned out not to be the case, though the spouse on the death certificate was not the same person associated with Leland E’s find-a-grave entry. Later, it occurred to me to check find-a-grave.com and newspaper obituaries for the spouse reported on Leland E’s death certificate. Finally, a breakthrough!

genealogybank.com and find-a-grave.com both had obituaries for Leland E’s end-of-life spouse and, fortunately, those accounts had sufficient detail for me to conclude that my Leland E could have been married to my aunt and his end-of-life spouse (i.e., they didn’t marry until 1987) before the find-a-grave Leland’s death in 1992.

Meantime, I began investigating the extended family of Leland’s presumed first wife and have, as a result, pieced together a hypothesis for what has turned out to be a fairly complex series of relationships. One of the most significant clues was a newspapers.com clipping from the Bismarck (ND) Tribune in June 1954 where Mr. and Mrs. Leland E [surname withheld] were listed as attendees at the marriage of a couple where the groom turned out to be a sibling of Leland E’s first wife. My current hypothesis is:

  1. Leland E was first married in the mid-1940s and was widowed at the time he and my aunt Dolores were married. His first wife died in 1972, and the five children mentioned for both their find-a-grave memorials are almost certainly their children together.
  2. Leland and Dolores divorced sometime before 1987 when Leland married his end-of-life spouse.

I haven’t yet requested divorce documentation for Dolores and Leland E, but that certainly seems the most likely resolution to their relationship. Of course, I won’t be entirely satisfied with my tentative conclusion (that my aunt Dolores and this Leland E were married) until/unless I obtain divorce papers for the couple or an obituary for Leland E that corroborates this conclusion. I’ve since requested marriage information and an obituary search for Leland and his first wife from the archives at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. I’m hopeful those details will finalize this aspect of my family tree.

Schooling-wise, per this month’s prompt, my first self-lesson is to mine records for every detail, no matter how minor. The statement that Leland E had not been divorced before his union with my aunt Dolores was significant in this case. Second, I should have checked for people with Leland’s surname in the cemetery where he is buried. Third, I need to continually remind myself to be receptive to alternative explanations and willing to investigate even far-fetched connections because they might just turn out to be the one that proves the case!

I was fortunate in this investigation that my aunt’s spouse had a fairly uncommon given name, and that he was born and/or lived in a sparsely populated state, thus limiting other possibilities. I also have other indexed records that support my conclusions, e.g., Ancestry’s various public record indexes, but I’m always cautious about indexed records because of I can’t personally view the information.

3 thoughts on “His answer to a simple question

  1. Great sleuthing job sorting out Leland’s wives. Using multiple sources can certainly fill in the small details. Finding divorce papers would answer that last question – if you don’t find them, could Leland have just walked away from a marriage? I think that might have happened with my great grandmother’s sister.

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