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I have been researching my great-grandfather in US records and the 1880 census of his household referred to a middle-aged woman with different last name living in the household as his "mother in law" (his age at the time was 24 and his wife was 25) - later deduced that this was HIS natural mother - who had remarried a couple of times - not hers, after going down a number of confusing genealogy rabbit holes. Was this a common usage of the term "mother in law" in the late 1800's?

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Consider that the "mother-in-law" could actually be a stepmother. It would not be unusual for those two terms to be used interchangeably.

Also consider that mistakes happen, and it may not have been the head of household who gave the information to the census enumerator. If the wife gave the information, then she may have quite correctly described the mother as her mother-in-law, and therefore got recorded as such.

Keep in mind that just because your great grandfather's mother had the same name as the "mother-in-law", you can't assume they are the same person. For example, I have one ancestor who had three wives all called Elizabeth, and they were very difficult to differentiate as they were all approximately the same age and born in similar locations.

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No. It's possible that the Census taker made a mistake.

(Having multiple marriages was absolutely common back then, because so many people died young, and women were abandoned by men.)

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There are two issues involved in this question.

Language usage changes

Your instinct to ask about changes in language usage is good! Language changes over time, and it's a mistake to assume that a record from 1880 will have the same meaning as it does in the modern day.

Michael Quinion, via his site World Wide Words' entry In-Laws addresses a question about the use of the term father-in-law in Dickens. Quinion says "All these -in-law forms came into the language in the fourteenth century." The term comes from Canon Law (church law), "specifically the rules of affinity that prohibit any marriage between relatives".

Quinion also contrasts the usage of the -in-law forms with terms like stepfather, which go back to Old English, though the term had a different meaning originally.

In my own research, I have seen "daughter-in-law" in a census from England for a girl who was enumerated as 9 years old. That was the record that alerted me to the fact that '-in-law' usages shouldn't be taken at face value.

Always do a search if you have questions about a term used in records. You can look for contemporary dictionaries, law dictionaries, the statutes that pertain the creation of the record, articles about language usage in genealogical periodicals, etc.

Perils of relying on one source

Repeating this from an earlier answer for emphasis.

Also consider that mistakes happen, and it may not have been the head of household who gave the information to the census enumerator. If the wife gave the information, then she may have quite correctly described the mother as her mother-in-law, and therefore got recorded as such.

Of the US Federal Census records released to the public so far, only the 1940 Census had instructions for the enumerator to mark the informant.

In his article “Perils of Source Snobbery,” OnBoard 18 (May 2012). at the website of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, says:

[S]ingle sources, whatever their qualities, always require further research.

A source’s accuracy is unknown until the researcher has accumulated enough evidence for tests of correlation—the comparison and contrasting of sources and information to reveal points of agreement and disagreement.

In my own research, I have a household from the 1920 Census where a woman is the head of household and her mother, also in the household, is correctly identified as her mother, but her mother has apparently gone back to using her own maiden name. Some "helpful" Ancestry user has assumed this is mom's married name, and has assigned mom's maiden name to the daughter for her maiden name, which is not correct.

Research Journals

I recommend that people keep a reseach journal of some kind, or write research reports to themselves, where they can record their thoughts about a problem, including explicit statements about any assumptions they made when working the problem. This makes it easier to review what you've done if you have to leave the problem and come back to it later (which most of us will have to do). Journals on particular topics can hold notes on changes in language usage, census references, and so on.

It's good to note this in your regular genealogy software, too, but having separate reference journals makes the information easy to find again when you need it for a different line of your family.

Further reading:

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