“Adopted Daughter” Emma

The 1880 federal census for Boston, Massachusetts, shows Emma J. Nichols, age 4, born in Massachusetts, as the “adopted daughter” of Mary E. Nichols, 49, born in New Hampshire.

Several years passed from the first discovery of Mary and Emma until two probable resolutions for Emma’s paternity emerged.

The unraveling requires a chronology for Mary, born Mary E. Frye, July 2, 1831, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Mary was the daughter of Levi Frye, a direct descendant of Adrian Frye, and Lydia Grant, a direct descendant of Peter Grant, a Scottish POW transported by Cromwell following the 1650 Battle of Dunbar.

Mary married first, October 31, 1847, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Charles H. Phelps. Charles was born about 1819 in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Jacob and Rebecca Phelps. Charles and Mary had four children, all born in Charlestown: Mary E., born August 16, 1848, who married October 10, 1863, in Charlestown, Ira D. Williams; George Henry, born September 28, 1850, who married October 27, 1872, in Charlestown, Eveline F. Barney; Edward Augustus, born May 28, 1852, who married July 19, 1875, in Charlestown, Mary J. Reed; and Charles F. born in 1855, who married September 4, 1876, in Charlestown, Marron (Marion) W. King.

Charles H. Phelps, a cabinetmaker, died of consumption on January 13, 1855, either shortly before or after the birth of his son, Charles.

A widow with four small children, Mary Phelps married second, December 3 (5), 1855, in Charlestown, John Nichols.

John Nichols was born about 1811 in Maine, perhaps at Cape Elizabeth, where his father Thomas was born, or in Durham, where his parents, Thomas and Margaret (Peggy) Smith married and where the births of several of his siblings are recorded.

Mary was John’s second wife. He married first, September 21, 1837, in Durham, Androscoggin, Maine, Rebecca M. Dunham. John brought two children to his newly combined family: Margaret D., born about 1838, and Alvin M., born about 1842. A third child, daughter Hellen L., was born about 1848 in Maine but died December 12, 1853, age 5, in Boston. All three children were born in Strong, Franklin, Maine, where the census finds them in 1850.

Mary (Frye) Phelps and John Nichols had two children: John Gilman Nichols, born about 1858, who married June 19, 1881, in Charlestown, Sadie M. Perkins, and Helen Rebecca Nichols, born about 1860.

There do not appear to have been any more children born to John and Mary. The 1860 and 1870 censuses for Charlestown do not show any more Nichols children.

There is no entry in the 1880 census in Charlestown or Boston for John Nichols, leaving the impression that he had died. Additionally, the 1880 census does not show any of Mary’s children born from her union with Charles Phelps or with John Nichols living with her. Mary was in modern parlance nearly an emptynester. The youngest child, who had begun going by the name “Rebecca” around 1860, would have been twenty but nothing more is known of her.

Residing with Mary, however, is Emma J. (or I.) Nichols, an “adopted” daughter.

The most likely conclusion for John Nichols’ absence on the 1880 census is that he had died, Mary was once again a widow. He had not. She was not.

Nor had John and Mary divorced.

Interestingly John Nichols’ death certificate, dated August 12, 1898, in Freeport, Cumberland, Maine, claims that he was widowed. He was not.

Mary (Frye)(Phelps) Nichols did not die until July 18, 1907, in Boston.

What then, is the explanation?

It is obvious from the 1880 census that Mary and John were living apart. That is not an unusual circumstance, as he could have been working away from the home.

A clue comes from Mary’s third marriage, October 20, 1898, in Boston, to Francis Edward Knight. Francis was born October 15, 1835, in Coventry, Orleans, Vermont, to Wilder Knight and Sarah Cushman. Francis is listed on the marriage record as retired and Mary as “at home.”

The Nichols-Knight nuptial came only two months after the passing of John Nichols. It is hard to come up with any other explanation than that the couple had been waiting for just such a “break” as a divorce certificate appeared never to be forthcoming. (Remember, John Nichols death certificate claims that he was widowed. We can only speculate on why he returned to his native Maine.)

The odds are that Emma Nichols was Mary’s daughter with an “adoption” fig leaf. Emma I. Nichols, born December 26, 1875, in Boston, was my great grandmother and one of my family tree’s great mysteries.

Was her “adopted” status given to the census taker by her mother? a neighbor? or a more socially-correct assumption by the census taker? Was she the daughter of John Nichols? or of Francis Knight? or of some unknown father?

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