What records are best for finding my female ancestor's maiden name?

Researching female ancestors is a challenge for many reasons, not the least of which is the status of women in earlier times, which limited their rights and prevented their names from appearing in official records. The issue has been further complicated with the practice of women taking their husband's name after marriage, in many ways erasing her past. And the further back we go, when less is known on a first-hand basis, the more complicated the task.

However, there are many records that can reveal the maiden names of our female ancestors and many others that can be used in combination to suggest and confirm. And because some of the sources may not be as accessible as others or may be more intimidating to research, beginning researchers may avoid them altogether. Fortunately, more and more of records are being digitized and indexed, creating greater access; but networking with others is also key in accessing information -- different people may have different parts of the puzzle and you may find someone who has already researched the record you need.

One very good way to begin networking to find a female ancestor's maiden name is create a Message Board query and put it out there for the world to see, and it may not be a distant relative that responds, but someone else with the knowledge and a generous spirit. At the same time, be sure to verify the accuracy of any work obtained from others.

One key point to make if you are having difficulty in locating your ancestor's maiden name is to look beyond her records to of "all" records of her siblings, children, husband, and extended family -- this step cannot be overstated. In addition, you may very well find key information in the records of others with whom your ancestor was associated; for example, you may not be able to tell at first glance if one of those "others" is a relative: whenever you find associated names of others in the course of your research, follow it through.

There are many places where a woman's maiden name might be found, and the "best" record is the one that contains the information. So, in effect, there is no "best" record. The following are some of the more likely (and accessible) places to check, along with some that might very well contain maiden names but require a little more digging.

  • Home & Family Sources. One of the most accessible of all sources are those right in your own home or that of close family members. Various types of documents and memorabilia might be found in home records that indicate woman's maiden name

  • Marriage Records. The most obvious place to look for a woman's maiden name is on her marriage record, typically indexed by the names of both bride and groom. and the best advice is to search "all" marriage records for your ancestor -- information not provided in one record may very well be provided in another (and do not overlook the names of witnesses, who may be a relative of the bride).

  • Divorce Records. Divorce records often contain detailed family information; if a woman was married more than once and not widowed, you will want to look for a divorce record.

    Death Record. Where known, the deceased person's parents are typically listed on the death certificate. And do not overlook the informant listed on the death record, who like the witness of a marriage, may be a close family relative.

  • Obituary. In the absence of a death record or if the parent's names were "unknown," an obituary is an alternative, which often list the parents names. Any siblings listed, especially brothers, may also suggest a maiden name, but should be verified in case of half-brothers or step-brothers. And don't overlook the obituaries of the husband, children and siblings where close family members are named.

  • Other Death Record. Other death records that might contain maiden names are cemetery headstones, funeral records (and funeral cards), and sexton records, again, checking these same records for all family members.

  • Children's Birth Records. It is common practice that mother's maiden name is given on a child's birth record; this information is often included in birth indexes as well on the the actual document. This, of course, includes baptismal and other church records.

  • Church Records. Historically and before civil registration, vital records were maintained by the church, which still holds true today. By their very nature church records are excellent sources of personal information. Check also for records of the husband and children, as they grew and moved from place to place, checking all children from all marriages.

  • Pension and Military Records. A woman's maiden name might be indicated in a pension record, especially if she had to produce some proof of her marriage; but may also be found in general military records.

  • Other Public Records. Other places to check for a woman's married name, which could then lead to her maiden name, include wills and probate records; land records; and court records (which includes divorce and other legal "events"). Wills, probate and land deeds may exist for the woman herself, but check also for the husband and other known family members. Often a woman's maiden name is "buried" in the records of others.

  • Census Records. One of the first places to check in the course of genealogical research are census records, which may include the names of extended family members living in the same household (the relationship of each individual to the head of household are noted beginning with the 1880 census), and be sure to check each census taken during your ancestor's lifetime.

Other Places To Check

  • Local Area Histories. Local area histories are rich sources of family information and often link families together. Information on a husband's family may indicate who the children married, even if they did not live in the same community.

  • Newspapers. Today, newspapers are becoming more and more accessible online, with the ability to do a name search. In addition to obituaries, a woman's maiden name might be found in various types of social articles that may include a wide range of personal information such as weddings, school activities, and even reports of visitors.

  • School Records. If you know where your ancestor went to school, you may be able to find her through alumni records or reunion records that might identify her by her married name (and then list her maiden name).

  • Work of Others. While checking to see what others have done may be one of the first steps in research, is important to verify what you find. As with all work obtained from others, it's good to think of published genealogies and user-generated family trees as leads rather than answers, until you have verified the accuracy of the information.

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