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.