Strategies for Finding Female Ancestors
9/27/2009

Know your names.
Why can it be so difficult to trace women in genealogical records? Prior to the 20th century, most historical records were for and about men. Property was usually listed under the man's name, and men ran businesses and the government. Meanwhile, a woman typically changed her name each time she married, and, of course, children carried men's surnames to the next generation. If finding the females in your family tree has you singing the blues, get back in sync with these eight research strategies.

Note the names of each woman's husband, children and siblings-and especially any unusual middle names, which could be the mothers' or grandmothers' maiden names (such as Evelyn Vallis Neville).

Make a timeline.
A timeline puts your ancestor in historical perspective and points you to genealogical records (see our record-research advice). Begin the timeline with the woman's birth and end with her death. Between, write everything you know about her, including her marriage date and children's birth dates and places. Add events, such as migrations and hospitalizations, as you uncover them. Include significant national occurrences, such as wars and epidemics, and local events you glean from county histories. Web sites such as OurTimelines.com and our Women's history timeline will help, too.

Ask around.
Women are often the "communicators" in families, so talk to your older female relatives and schedule a visit to talk about your family. Ask each woman about her mother's maiden name, how she met her husband, what motherhood was like and favorite family recipes. See more interviewing tips and questions.

Missed your chance? Interview your ancestor's children, grandchildren, other relatives, friends and neighbors. Pay special attention to names, dates, places and unusual occurrences that could point your research in a particular direction.

Explore records.
Since no magical record set focuses on females, researching them in genealogical documents is more about strategy than anything else. See our record-by-record rundown of searching techniques for women.

To determine which records to look for, examine your ancestors' timelines and note events that may have generated records. Weddings mean marriage records; children may have birth and baptismal certificates; migrations could lead to land records.

Note social or religious groups, or fraternal benefit societies a woman might've belonged to through her church or community. Contact the main office to ask about historical records. If the organization no longer exists, a historical society or library archive may have its files.

You'll find more places to look for records in Christine Kassabian Schaefer's book, The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women's Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing Co., $39.95). It contains a state-by-state resource guide with important dates, laws governing your female ancestors' lives, and advice for finding records they left.

Investigate her associates.
You'll find yourself looking for your female ancestor in records of her husband, father, brothers and other men she's associated with. She may show up as a household member, godparent, heir or in-law. In particular, witnesses named in a woman's or her family members' marriage licenses, naturalization papers and baptismal records may be related to her.

Search databases smartly.
When searching genealogy database sites such as FamilySearch, the subscription site Ancestry.com (a version called Ancestry Library Edition is free at many public libraries) and HeritageQuest Online (also free through many libraries) look for both maiden and married names-women in some cultures used their maiden names on official records. A woman also might appear under an initial or nickname, and not necessarily the same nickname in every record. Look at other details in the record, such as age, birthplace and husband's name, to help you determine whether she's your ancestor. As with any name search, try alternate name spellings and different combinations of search parameters.

If you can't find your female ancestor in a census or immigration database, search for her children. And look for people who appear with her in other records-they might be relatives or friends she traveled with and settled near, and her name could be barely legible on the next line.

Read her diaries and letters.
Men's deeds are most often recorded in history books, but women may have "spoken" their thoughts in a diary and in letters to distant relatives and soldier sons. They can provide both genealogical details and insight into female ancestors' lives.

Journals and correspondence of other community members also may mention your ancestor. Search for them in the local library, historical society or museum. You'll find memoirs-perhaps even a relative's-catalogued in Laura Arksey's American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals from 1845 to 1980 (Gale Group, out of print).

Writings of unrelated ordinary and famous women, in the absence of records on your own ancestor, will help you tap into her daily life. If your aunt, for example, was a WWII "Rosie" or planted a Victory Garden, learn what her life may have been like from the transcribed essays at What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

Share |
BOOKMARK PRINT
Did you enjoy this article?
Please share it!
Recent Blog Posts »
Recent Articles »

Genealogist's Google Earth Premium Collection

With the free online program Google Earth, you can follow your forebears across the planet from the comfort of your personal computer.

Only available in April, this collection has a retail value of $123.99, but is yours this month only for $59.99!

Copyright © 2014 by F+W Media.