Finding Female Ancestors
Richard W. Price, MA, AG®
As genealogists we all have brick walls: can be any time, place or location. There is no one solution for solving a dead end in our lineage. Every problem needs to be approached differently. Because most records in most locations and time periods are centered around men, we often have only a first name of a wife, or often, no name at all. We just know she was the wife of Thomas Jones. To solve such a dilemma we must determine the time, location and circumstances relative to our female ancestor. We must lay the groundwork for attacking the problem in a special way.
Perhaps the most straightforward way to attack such a problem is to make a timeline of her life. Collect all information known about her. If not much is known, focus on her husband. Where were they when, from marriage or even birth, to the time they had their children, to the close of their lives.
1. Look for the marriage record itself. Find the original marriage record. The marriage licence or application can be more valuable than the original. If you can’t find the marriage, seek it in surrounding areas, or check various marriage indexes.
2. Check all possible records on husband to get clues to help determine who she was.
3. If ancestor fought in the military, check pension papers for the widow. Military Pension Papers valuable, especially if wife outlived husband. Good for Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Union Civil War, Spanish-American War, Indian Wars, etc.
Ancestry.com has Union Pension Papers. A woman had to prove that she was lawful wife and widow of soldier. Rejected Pension Applications often contain more details than accepted ones.
4. Land records, deeds., homestead records or other court papers might give wife’s first name, or even her maiden name. Land Records: One of principal sources for determining maiden name. These are not helpful in large cities or if the family rented. If man died without a will, his real estate had to be divided among heirs. Included all children, even daughters with married names. Locate them in grantor-grantee indexes. Court Records Sample.
Salem, Essex, Massachusetts Court of Sessions of Peace 26 Dec 1710
Rachel Codury of Marblehead appears and confessed herself guilty of ye
crime of fornication with Andrew Tucker Jr. Of Marblehead.
5. Immerse yourself in all the records of the area. Study other families, especially her husband’s family, his occupation, socio-economic status, etc. Did husband move frequently, or come from a well-established family of the area? Did he deal with people of other surnames? He may have worked with his wife’s father, so find out with whom he had business dealings. Who did he buy and sell land to/from/with? Don’t just focus on the couples. Broaden your search. What happened to the children? Perhaps another descendant has information.
6. Trace the family in all possible census returns. US or Canadian censuses, especially 1841 or 1851 and later. Husband’s sister married in New Jersey, so check N.J. and you might find his marriage there as well. Census: U.S. 1790-1930 Can get access to most census returns on line. 1940 or later can be acquired for a fee.
British census 1911, 1921 can also be searched by correspondence.
Canada through 1901; FamilySearch 1880 and 1881 census
Old woman living with family in census, might be mother-in-law. Seek her DC
7. Check private papers: your own family records and histories, family Bibles, etc.
8. The marriage may not have been recorded anywhere that survives, especially if in N.Y., PA, Southern States, or any frontier. Even a marriage in New England may not survive.
9. Once a woman was widowed, she became head of the household. When she needs assistance as a single woman or a widow, who will she turn to act as a surety in a bond or witness to land transaction? She will likely go to her brothers or father in the area. Names on legal documents dealing with a widow might be her relatives.
10. Sources to check to locate her name:
a. Church records
HENRY IRISH IMMIGRATED FROM BRITISH ISLES TO NYC IN 1819. HE LIVED IN NYC AND QUEENS. 1850 CENSUS SAID BOTH HE AND WIFE BORN ENGLAND. LOST TRACK OF FAMILY IN 1920’S. FOUND A COUSIN INTERESTED. FIND OUT WHAT SHE KNOWS ABOUT THE IRISHES. SHE HAD A LARGE PULPIT BIBLE WHICH STATED:
HENRY & ANN IRISH MARRIED 1 JAN 1807 KINGSTON, PORTSEA, ENGLAND. HENRY WAS SON OF JOSEPH AND SARAH (LANGE) IRISH. HENRY WAS BORN 15 NOV 1787 AT HAVANT, HAMPSHIRE. ANN IRISH WAS DAUGHTER OF JOHN AND MARY (REED) HILL, BORN PORTSMOUTH, HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND.
GENEALOGICAL EPIPHANY. ! It worked for David Dearborn, it might work for you. Seek relatives and bibles on Internet, etc.
c. Newspaper notices of marriage, birth, death, moving, etc.
Montrose Democrat, PA. 9 Apr 1873
Married at Franklin township, Susquehanna, PA 28 Mar 1873, Henry Dearborn to Miss Cordelia Annis, daughter of Mr. Robert Seamans (only source of marriage for that time period). 24. Private Records
d. Private journals, diaries, letters in your family’s possession, etc. Families have histories, MS or printed. Samplers – needlepoint and cross-stitch, India ink or watercolor. Includes Family Group, parents and children’s names, birth dates, view of family farm.
Banton Family (masonic stone symbols)
Samuel Banton (died, age) md. Rebecca Gilham (died and age)
e. Gravestones or cemetery records. Took 30 years to find the parents even after found the death stone. Found descendants a couple of generations later to acquire needed info.
Esther wife of William Barth died Feb 28, 1832 age 78 years
daughter of Thomas and Tabitha Barlow of England
Had already traced William Barlow to Esther Bantin. Stone said, “Esther Barlow had 3 or 4 children.”
f. Death certificate of a woman should have her maiden name on it, as well as her parents’ names and birthplaces. Her husband’s death certificates should have her maiden name. Her children’s death certificates also may have her maiden name. Her children’s marriage records also may have it. Civil or Vital records, for example, California Death Index: Pembrook Banton died 1940 in California. Marital Status: Divorced. Searched divorces and found them. Divorce papers indicated:
Married in Dubuque, Iowa 14 Mar 1887
We never knew they ever lived in Iowa. His siblings also were found in Iowa.
g. Obituaries of husband, wife or relatives.
New Hampshire Morning Star, Dover, N.H.
Died in Jackson, N.H. 16 Dec 1850 Mrs. Martha, wife of Moses Anderson and youngest daughter of Mr. George and Mrs. Catherine Johnson, aged 17 years 8 months. She left an infant child. (Death certificate does not give any of this info. Obit much more valuable)
h. Divorce records: Usually give wife’s maiden name, or tell where and when married. May tell exactly where from
i. Probate record of her father or her brothers. You may need to read all wills in the county to determine her name. Probates might be published, abstracted and indexed . New Hampshire has all wills abstracted and published with an every name index. NH State Papers, vol. 31-39.
11. Published or prepared Indexes:
- IGI or FamilySearch.com
- FHL surname catalogue
- NEHGS or other major libraries, local towns, universities, etc.
- There are many CDs with marriages for a state or province
- American Genealogical & Biographical Index (AGBI) has hundreds of volumes. Indexes all names in 1790 census, includes all soldiers who fought in Revolutionary War. Indexes countess county histories, esp. New England. It is at NEHGS.
- Every-name index to NEHGR – available on CD or published. This quarterly published continuously since 1847. It is a treasure trove of information.
- PERSI – index of journal articles from 19thC to the present. Can seek all entries of your surnames, but not individual given names. This index is on www.ancestry.com.
- NYGBR, NGSQ, TAG, The Genealogist, and other periodicals. New England 17th century use Clarence Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700. It is on CD Rom. Has 38,000 marriages of New England pre-1700, including Englishmen who came to New England.
County histories, especially Midwest – OH, IN, MI, IL, PA, NY areas. Called Midwest “mug books” by Vanity Press Publications. Information was self-serving, flattered people to put your own bio and photo of self, family or farm. Not always accurate.
- Newberry Library Index, name index to County Histories – State by State and county by county. List of surnames in these histories. Try local libraries where the family is from. Often have MS collections. Some library catalogues on Internet.
- Do Google search for family surnames, locations.
- NUCMUC tells what libraries have genealogies published on your family name.
NEHGS has CD with all info in their collection of bibles.
13. Other Sources to find maiden name:
- Transcribed or published monograph or article in journal on your surname.
- What was religion? Don’t assume same as you are today. RC, Protestant, Jewish, which branch?
- Variance in records: Church record calls her Harriet Irish; civil registration calls her Sarah Irish.
There are many sources, records and methodologies for finding a maiden name.
*Your ancestor did not appear out of nowhere. Had a life and lived somewhere prior to marriage.
*When ancestor married her family didn’t go away – they probably live in the same area.
*Learn about the area: history, topography, religion,
*There is no guarantee we will find maiden name. We look and look, seek suggestions and sources and ways to approach a problem.
*Look at the whole family – all children, siblings, of husband. The spouses may have married siblings of one another. Seek living descendants, bibles, death certificate of relatives, to solve a maiden name problem.
Allen, Donna Murray, “12 Ways to Find an Ancestor’s Maiden Name, Family Chronicle, 7:1 (Sept/Oct 2002);62
Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo, A Genealogist’s guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors (Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1998).
Deerborn, David C., “Methods to Identify a Wife’s Maiden Name,” The Essex Genealogist, 12 (1992):3-15
Dollarhide, William, “Identifying Female Ancestors: Some Case Histories,” Heritage Quest, 17:3 (May/June 2001):8-17.
Hogan, Roseann R.. “Female Ancestry,” Ancestry, 12:2 (March/April 1994): 26-28.
NEHGS Lectures on Tape
- Methods of Finding a Wife’s Maiden Name with David C. Dearborn, FASG
- If you can’t find the marriage record…
- Published Indexes
- County Histories
- Bible Records
- Church Records
- Newspapers Notices
- Census Records
- Death Records
- Divorce Records
- Probate (of wife’s parent or sibling)
- Widow’s Military Pension
- Court Records
Schaefer, Christina Kassabian, The hidden half of the family: A sourcebook for women’s genealogy (Baltimore:Genealogical Publishing Co., 1999)
See also the “Female Ancestors” category in Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet, which can be found at www.cyndislist.com/female.htm.