The not-yet widow

Different times, different meanings

She was, by all accounts, a strong and determined woman.

Mother of four children, three surviving to adulthood, she raised her youngsters largely without the assistance of her husband.

And therein lies the tale.

grass.widowSarah Christina S. Roberts was born 9 March 1846 in Bath County, and died there 5 March 1924 in the Williamsville Magisterial District.1 Daughter of Daniel Roberts and Mary Bauserman, she married a Civil War veteran, Daniel McCune, in Bath County just after the war’s end, on 21 September 1865.2

Sarah’s children were all born in Bath County. Her first child, daughter Mary Virginia, was born 22 July 1866;3 her second, son John, on 2 March 1868;4; her third, a son who did not survive, on 17 September 1869;5 and her last, son Francis Cameron, on 7 October 1877.6

The family was enumerated in Bath County in 1880: Daniel was shown as “Danil” McCune, age 45, a farmer born in Virginia of parents both born in Virginia. Sarah was shown as age 30, born in Virginia of parents both born in Virginia. Three children were enumerated with them: daughter “Jennie,” age 13; son John, age 11; and son Cameron, age 2. “Jennie” (Mary Virginia) and John were shown as having attended school within the prior year.7

And the next time the census records show the family — the 1900 census of Bath County — Sarah was recorded as a widow.8

But she wasn’t.

She and Daniel had been separated for years — he had moved back to his native West Virginia by 1882.9 They never divorced, and Daniel didn’t die until 1907.10

What Sarah was, in 1900, was a “grass widow.

If you look it up, you will find the term in at least one law dictionary: “A slang term for a woman separated from her husband by abandonment or prolonged absence; a woman living apart from her husband,” says Black’s Law Dictionary, citing to the Webster’s Dictionary of the day.11

And for most of us, as American genealogists, working in 19th or 20th or even 21st century records, that’s the usage and the meaning we’re going to encounter.

But there are other meanings at different times and different places.

In general British usage, the term may well mean only “a woman whose husband is temporarily away, say on business.”12 It doesn’t carry the same essential implication of marital strife the way the American usage does.

But both the British and American uses show up for the first time in the 1840s.13 And the term was in use long before that.

In that older usage, going back as early as 1528, “grass widow had a much coarser meaning, namely ‘a woman who lost her virginity before the wedding’ and ‘a deserted mistress.’”14

So it’s a matter of time and place… and in 1900 Virginia, it was used for a widow who wasn’t — not yet.


  1. Virginia State Board of Health, death certificate no. 5407 (1924), Mrs. Sarah McCune, 5 March 1924; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Richmond.
  2. Bath County, Virginia, Marriage Licenses 1853-1904, chronologically arranged, Daniel W. McCune and Sarah C.S. Roberts, 21 September 1865; Circuit Court Clerk’s office, Warm Springs.
  3. Va. Dept. of Health, death certificate no. 11050 (1942), Mary Virginia Burnett, 10 May 1942.
  4. Bath Co., Register of Births 1853-1870, p. 35, line 76, entry for John H. McCune, 2 March 1868.
  5. Bath Co., Register of Births 1853-1870, p. 37, line 64, entry for unnamed male McCune, 17 September 1869.
  6. Bath Co., Birth Register, carded records, entry for Francis C.L. McCune, citing tax assessor list for 1877, sheet 18, line 38. The birth card erroneously reports the child’s gender as female.
  7. 1880 U.S. census, Bath County, Virginia, Williamsville Township, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 28, p. 14B (penned), dwelling 110, family 112, Danil McCune; digital image, ( : accessed 23 May 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1355.
  8. 1900 U.S. census, Bath County, Virginia, Williamsville Township, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 44, sheet 11B, p. 56B (stamped), dwelling 187, family 188, Sarah McCune household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 April 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 1701.
  9. Bath Co., Table of Tracts of Land for the Year 1882, alphabetically arranged, entry for “McCune, Daniel W.”; LVA land tax microfilm 745.
  10. Calhoun County, (West) Virginia, Death Register 2: 253, entry 632, McCune, D.W., 21 November 1907; County Clerk’s Office, Grantsville.
  11. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 548, “grass widow.”
  12. See Michael Quinion, “Grass widow,” World Wide Words ( : accessed 1 Apr 2014).
  13. See ibid. Also, Online Etymology Dictionary ( : accessed 1 Apr 2014), “grass widow.”
  14. Anatoly Liberman, “Grass Widows and Straw Men,” Oxford University Press’s OUPblog, posted 18 Feb 2009 ( : accessed 1 Apr 2014).
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19 Responses to The not-yet widow

  1. nancy says:

    The “W” status on censuses caused me several times to mistakenly believe the spouse had died – making it troublesome when said spouse showed up very much alive in a later census!
    I hadn’t heard the term “grass widow” before – thanks Judy, as always, for your illumination.

  2. Ruth Rawls says:

    Well, that helps clear up some mysteries! Thank you for that!

  3. Sharon Meeker says:

    In the movie Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne mentions having married a “grass widow,” who later went back to her first husband. Rooster calls her a “divorced woman.”

    I’ve run across plenty of “widows” in census records, when I know the husband is still alive. I think that it was much more respectable to be a widow, than divorced or separated.

  4. Jana Last says:


    Thank you for this helpful information!

    My great-grandfather’s ex-wife listed herself as a widow in the 1900 census, even though my great-grandfather was alive and well.

    I want you to know that two of your blog posts are listed in today’s Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  5. Barb Bonomini says:

    Wow, what an interesting and informational article! Thank you so much for posting this!

  6. Anne Myers says:

    My g-g-grandfather was in an insane asylum for 21 years. His wife was listed as married in the census – but she clearly thought of herself as a widow since she remarried 6 years into his commitment. Was that common?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Many state laws treated commitment — whether to an asylum or a prison — as desertion and allowed a divorce after a certain amount of time. You should check for a divorce record.

  7. Mary Coleman says:

    In my small Texas town in late 1940′s and early 1950′s a grass widow was divorced (grass was greener on the other side of the fence) and a sod widow was husband buried.

  8. Lori says:

    I have an ancestor who claimed she was a widow in the 1900 census. However, her husband’s headstone shows 1909. Fortunately, it is family to me, and other family members told me she didn’t believe in divorce, and for the last ten years of their married life, they lived under the same roof but never spoke. I don’t guess that’s a grass widow, as he was still living with her, but that census confused me for a long time. I also wondered why they were buried in different rows in the cemetery. Thank goodness for gossiping family members. :)

  9. Chris Bond says:

    I recently suspected that was going on with one of my ancestors. She is living with her mother as a “widow” but I just discovered her husband lived in the next town and died after her.
    Judy, I noticed in your footnotes, the title “Grass Widows and Straw Men”. Where men called Straw Men in referenced to being “widowed”?
    Thanks for this timely article!

  10. Patricia Whipple says:

    My great grandmother’s sister was a “grass widow” in the 1880 census (New York). It was in the occupation column so it took awhile to research and figure out what it meant. Her husband had abandoned her and their two young sons. Years later, she had him declared legally dead so she and her sons could receive his portion of his deceased parents’ estate.

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