One of the genealogist’s unique challenges comes in the form of tracking down female ancestors. In earlier times when record keeping was spotty at best, many records of major events were incomplete. Women didn’t often vote, hold jobs, own property, or perform other activities that would routinely generate a paper trail before the early 20th century. This wasn’t always the case, and many times researchers will find that women’s information was more complete. But it’s a common enough challenge that comes up in genealogical work that we decided to explore it more. What’s a family history researcher to do when they’re working on tracking down a female ancestor and the data is limited?
Understand the context
Prior to the early to mid-1900s, women’s identities were often very intertwined with those of their husbands, fathers, and sons. By law, in many places, women were not allowed to vote, hold property, or work outside the home. Even when it was allowed, female independence was a somewhat isolated event. Further, men of the times were in charge of writing the histories and keeping track of the information that was recorded. These things combined to create the situation where records on some female ancestors either don’t exist or don’t contain basic information that researchers are seeking. It’s led some genealogists to call women our “invisible ancestors.” Today, this context is both sad to reflect on and frustrating from a research perspective. But it’s also the reality, and genealogists have developed several creative ways of learning more about female ancestors. Here’s a closer look at some of the tricks of the trade.
Look at the marriage records
Marriage records are an important source of your female ancestors’ maiden name. Typically, this information would be recorded on the marriage license. It would also be preserved on church or government records announcing the marriage, recording the marriage, and performing the marriage. Genealogists consult records as diverse as family bibles, wedding licenses, church registers, banns, and marriage applications that could be held at the town, county, or provincial level (depending on the country). Once a researcher has obtained a marriage record, there are several pieces of important information that can be gleaned. These include the bride’s maiden name, her parent’s names, place of birth, the date of the marriage, and the location that the wedding was performed. Each of these clues helps fill important gaps in the genealogical picture. Divorce records can also provide similar information where applicable.
Another valuable location for records about female ancestors are cemetery records. A gravestone is often one of the most concrete records that an individual has left behind of his or her life. Cemetery records often list some information, and a visit to the cemetery in question can provide additional perspective. The insights gleaned range from inscriptions to the quality of the stone to the proximity of the burial in relation to other individuals. You can also get secondary confirmation of names, birth and date death, spouse’s name, and even parental status (e.g. from inscriptions such as “beloved mother”). It’s important to remember that cemetery records have variable reliability, depending upon who has reported the information that’s been inscribed.
Government census records
A government census record is another avenue to pursue. Government census records may not list your ancestor’s maiden name, but may provide important context clues to her life. For example, it may list her spouse, children, age, the value of their estate, if she worked outside the home, her basic levels of education, and more. Tracing a female ancestor across the decades of her life through the census can give an idea of how her life unfolded. When you find an ancestor in the census, take a detailed copy of the information on that page and surrounding pages. Information about neighbors and other household members can be important clues to the bigger picture.
In some areas, women owned property independently or in common with a husband. She may have received a dowry from her father when she married, or a dower from her husband’s estate when he passed on. Women may be mentioned in wills, or have wills of their own. Baptism records for a woman or her children; probate details related to inheritance; church attendance rolls; military service and pension records; jail records; and obituaries and other newspaper clippings are additional sources of information that should be examined.
Tracking down details on a missing female ancestor can be a challenge. Following the usual paper trails may not be enough. But a persistent researcher is likely to find evidence of maiden names, birth and death dates, and other details if they’re willing to be creative about finding new sources of information. If you’re interested in professional assistance locating information about a female ancestor or anyone in your family history, contact Price & Associates today to arrange a personal consultation.
The Role of DNA in Genealogy
Within the last five years, a number of services have come on the market that are changing the relationship between DNA and genealogy. Traditionally, family history research was restricted to what written documents could tell us. But new services can give additional insights into the web of connections that make up our genealogical stories. Here’s a closer look at the different tests on the market, and how they can add to your quest to learn more about your family history.
How DNA testing works for genealogical research
DNA testing for genealogical research tests a subject’s DNA and compares specific segments of that DNA to comparative samples. The results are then compared to other living individuals’ DNA, as well as to specific ethnic group results. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, DNA tests can give you a wide range of genealogical insights. It’s important to know, however, that this testing is different than genetic testing for diseases or medical risks. These services focus specifically on helping answer questions such as whether you are descended from or related to a specific person, or if your genetic makeup includes similarities to populations from Switzerland or the Cherokee Nation.
The testing process
If you’re not familiar with DNA testing, the process is fairly simple. In most instances, once you purchase the service a DNA kit will be mailed to you. Many include a simple swab, similar to a Q-tip, that’s rubbed against the inside of your cheek. The swabs are then placed in a sterile tube and mailed back to the lab. Other services may use methods such as spit cups and mouthwash.
Samples are tested when they arrive at the laboratory. In terms of privacy concerns, some labs keep samples on file for future testing. Others dispose of samples after a set period of time. All labs will destroy samples at a customer’s request, and most reputable services have a standard process for making that request.
What is being tested
There are three types of genetic tests that are currently available for use in genealogical research. These include autosomal testing, mitochondrial DNA testing, and Y-chromosome testing. Without getting too technical, each type of testing yields a unique set of information. Autosomal testing is most frequently used in ethnic testing. These products will return a result that suggests your ancestors were of Italian, English, and Scottish descent, for example. Mitochondrial DNA goes deeper, testing the DNA that’s been passed along from mother to child. It can be conducted on a man or a woman, and show specific biological relationships through a common female ancestor, as well as information about geographic origins. Y-chromosome testing can only be conducted on males, and gives insight into a family’s paternal lineage. Understanding the underlying processes is useful because it can assist you in choosing the right testing product for your needs.
The kinds of genealogical questions DNA can help answer
Haplogroup research: National Geographic pioneered a project that uses matrilineal DNA to take a closer look at the early origins of specific groups, called Haplogroups. Through extensive research, it is believed that this DNA information can provide insights into the migration patterns of your earliest ancestors from Africa or the Middle East through Europe or other regions. If your interests extend to ancient history, the results can be intriguing.
Ethnicity: For many people whose families have been in the United States or Canada for an extended period of time, their ethnic makeup is murky at best. One individual may find that his or her ancestry includes people from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Latin America, Asia, and Native American tribes. Whether you’re trying to confirm family lore of a Wampanoag ancestor or just get a better picture of your ancestry, tests that offer insight into your ethnicity can be both fun and interesting to explore.
Living relative connections: Many of the specific tests on the market are designed with one function in mind: to help give you an idea if you’re related to a specific person. For example, if your DNA research leads you to the conclusion that a specific person might be an ancestor but the details are unclear, DNA testing can help. By comparing your results with a known descendent of theirs, you can usually definitively answer the question. DNA tests can be an important tool in resolving this kind of issue, and adding additional verification to what the paper records indicate.
Community-based genealogy: As genealogy sites have become more popular, a trend has arisen of community-based genealogy. As a field, genealogists tend to be a helpful bunch. Two people pursuing the same line can often share information, confirm suspicions, and open up new fields of inquiry. Sites with a community function often show whether you have genetic relatives that are also in the system and give you the opportunity to connect.
If you’re interested in learning more about DNA testing for genealogy, the following is a list of companies offering these services. It’s not comprehensive and we have a clear preference for Family Tree DNA.
The decision of whether to use your DNA in your genealogical projects is highly personal. Many have privacy or personal concerns that lead them to not participate. Others find that the tests, which usually cost at least $100 to complete, may be unaffordable. That’s a completely acceptable decision, and good old-fashioned genealogical detective work can help you answer the same questions. But for people that are curious, there are a number of tools on the market that you can explore and get a different perspective on the unique blend of ancestors that make up your family history. Contact Price & Associates today for assistance with your most pressing genealogical questions.
By Richard Price, MA, AG
We recently completed another successful research project at Price & Associates. M.R. of Ogden, Utah wanted more information on his ancestors. During the research process, we identified 31 new direct-line ancestors in Germany and added 126 new individuals to M.R.’s database. These 126 people were all relatives of the 31 new ancestors. Of the new names, we identified 97 individuals in need of temple work. We are thrilled with the success of this research and to M.R. for having a desire to know and discover his lineage and ancestors.
Chad Lott is a Sugar House, Utah-based hairstylist. My wife, sister, cousin and all of my daughters have had Chad cut, color, style, generally improve their hair for a number of years, and now consider him a great friend. Just last year, Chad told Nancy, my wife, that he was looking for a very special gift to commemorate his mother’s 80th birthday. Of course, he knew that I was a genealogist and knew that his mother would find no gift so priceless as a knowledge of her family history.
Jacqueline Sorenson, Chad’s mother, was born to Mildred Underwood and John Tomsick. About the time of Jacqueline’s birth, her father left and Mildred never heard from him again. At the time, Mildred and Jacqueline lived in Los Angeles. Mildred had some basic information on Jacqueline’s father. His name was John Tomsick (or Thomsick), and he was a shipping clerk from Colorado that helped deliver goods between Colorado, Utah and California. John died in the 1950’s. The only relative or friend of John’s that Mildred remembered was named Lee.
With this basic information in-hand, we began researching Chad’s family – namely the father of whom Jacqueline had no memory and very little knowledge. We found a John Tomsick in the Los Angeles 1940 census. This John was a Colorado-born shipping clerk, and was around the same age as Mildred. We felt pretty good about this lead so accelerated our research. We learned that this John Tomsick was the son of Frank and Clara Tomsick of Colorado and that he had six brothers. In public records, we found photographs of John when he married Juanita Latham about three years after Jacqueline was born. We then found that John died on August 25, 1958 in Los Angeles. From what little we knew of John, we felt very encouraged by this information.
Our next step was to begin communicating with John’s family. Lee Tomsick’s wife, Pauline, posted much of the Tomsick family information online. When we spoke to Pauline, she answered a number of questions and was very helpful. According to her, the Tomsick family had no idea that John had fathered a child before he married Juanita. While we felt confident that our John Tomsick was Chad’s grandfather, we didn’t have proof.
I met Chad for the first time when I went to deliver the research and received a haircut at the same time. When I walked into the salon to meet him, I literally got chills when I saw him. The photographs I’d seen of the Tomsick family were not as clear as we’d hoped, but Chad had a strikingly similar build and facial features of the Tomsick men. All about 5’7” and 140 pounds or so, Chad Lott would fit in with any Tomsick.
This was very exciting to us, but we knew that the only way to prove the identity of Chad’s grandfather was to perform a DNA comparison. We compared Jacqueline’s DNA with that of John Tomsick’s family. This process took several months, but the DNA analysis indicated there was a 99.5 percent probability that Jacqueline was, in fact, the daughter of [or at least very closely related to] our John Tomsick, born in Colorado of Polish parents. The connection had been proven. What’s more, Jacqueline also found out that her half-brothers Stuart, Albert, Lee, Leroy and Ronnie Tomsick are still alive.
Thanks to God and science, it’s possible for us as genealogists to complement research efforts by using the infallible procedure of DNA comparison and link broken families ties.
Happy 81st birthday Jacqueline!
Richard Price MA