Rosa de León Guerrero Cepeda, whose signature appears above, was a 43 year old married woman in Hagåtña who decided to register her property with the Spanish government in 1897.
When she submitted her documents to do that, she described herself as being married to a man who had already been absent "overseas" for FIFTEEN YEARS without knowing his "whereabouts."
This left her with four children to raise on her own, although typically Chamorro families had aunts and grandmothers to lend a hand. When her husband left island, her oldest child, a daughter, was just entering her teenage years but her youngest was just born, perhaps even about to be born.
From her children's last name, we know that the missing husband was named Castro, but more than that we don't know. Rosa remained Cepeda, because in the Spanish system married women kept their birth names.
Another woman filed her papers with the government stating that her husband had been "ausente de la isla," "absent from the island," for TWENTY-ONE YEARS.
These wives and mothers were, to be honest, abandoned. It would be nice to think that their far-away husbands were sending them money, but I haven't come across any document showing that and, instead, I have found a number of documents suggesting the opposite. So many women wrote that their husband was away and his "whereabouts are unknown."
In one case, two minor children got the attention of the court, because their mother had died and their father was "absent and his location is unknown." These two children already lost their father to the big world and wide open sea, and they now lost their mother to the small confines of the grave. The court had to call a council of relatives together to provide for the minors.
Some women had to file petitions with the court about house and property ownership, which sometimes were in their absentee husbands' names. Writing wills, paying debts, property boundary disputes, providing for minor children when the mother died....all of these were left to the woman and/or the court.
The biggest legal complication was the inability of the woman to marry a new husband. Since there was no proof of death for the current but absent husband, neither the Church nor the government wanted a bigamous marriage, and divorce was not permitted at the time. So, some women just had a new man live in the house without the benefit of marriage.
We cannot be certain why Rosa's husband, Mr Castro, left Guam and, from all appearances, never returned. But a good guess would be to serve on the whaling ships or some other kind of commercial ocean vessel.
In another case, it is very clear that the absentee husband left on a whaling ship.
María Rivera Gogue, born on Guam, married José Barcinas, also from Guam. In 1898, María, living in Luta (Rota), filed a petition with the court for legal recognition of her land ownership.
She wrote in her petition,
"That my mentioned husband is found absent from this province for nine years, his whereabouts being unknown. That he left on one of the whaling ships that arrived at this port and since then no word from him at all has been had."
At least for some years, the Spanish Government on Guam made whaling captains sign promises to bring these Chamorro whalers back to Guam after a specific time, but this promise was routinely ignored and the Spanish Government had no way of enforcing its fulfillment anyway.
The thing is, many, if not most, of the numerous Chamorro men who left Guam to sail the seas, numbering in the hundreds, were bachelors. Some were as young as fourteen. So most of them left behind parents and siblings, not wives and children.
But Rosa's and María's situation reminds us that some of these Chamorro seafarers were married and did leave behind wives and children, without communication or financial support. In the Guam Census of 1897 there are many single mothers named and identified as "married," not "widowed," but their husbands' names are nowhere to be found. The government documents of the time show us the reason why, for at least many of them. Their husbands simply got on a ship and never came back.