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Tracing Women in your Family Tree

August, 2000 - by Surname Finder Staff

The women of our past were the silent heroes, holding together the family in bad times, slogging on against social and economic barriers after the loss of a husband, yet they are poorly documented in history.   The individual identities of women who lived prior to the twentieth century are often intertwined with those of their husbands, both by law and by custom.  Women couldn't vote until 1913, women rarely owned property unless it was jointly with their husband, and sometimes they were not even allowed to own property.  It wasn't until 1850 that women were even named in the federal census.  In the 1790 census it was thought that it was more important to identify boys over and under the age of 16 than to identify a man's wife.


This neglect can be frustrating. Half of all of our ancestors were women. Each female in our family tree provides us with a new surname to research and an entire branch of new ancestors to discover.  Tracing your female ancestors can be difficult, but if you have patience and a few tricks up your sleeve, you can succeed.

Trick #1

The first trick is the "Census Scan".  In the late 1800's a lot of folks were farmers and didn't move around a lot.  I knew my great-grandmother's name was Callie and she was married to Solomon Hollers.  They both show up in the 1920 census, so I was able to get her birth date and marriage date.   She was born around 1885 and was married in 1905.  This means that she was probably living with her parents in 1900. 

So I set out to scan for female children named Callie born about the same time in the 1900 census.  Daunting task indeed, but I did say you needed persistence.  You can be smart about it, though.  First, first look in the same neighborhood they are in in 1920. If that doesn't work, find where he is in 1900 and look in that neighborhood.  Lastly, venture out into the other neighborhoods in the county.

I found Callie in Solomon's neighborhood.  As a matter of fact, I found a Callie Henson in the same household as Solomon Hollers.  Turns out he was working as a farmhand  for his sister's husband's father, a Henson.  Callie was named as a daughter and Solomon was named as a farmhand.  That is how they met and fell in love (for you romantics out there).  That was lucky, but you never know what you will find unless you look.

Trick #2

The second trick is the fact that a  woman would often
give one of her children her own maiden name as a middle

name.  If you run out of reasonable neighborhoods, take a look at her male children's middle names.  Even the female children can be a clue.   Remember Callie?  Callie's mother's maiden name turned out to be Callaway.   I had a relative named Nathan Worrel Cranford....his mom was Nancy Worrel. 

Trick #3

The third trick up your sleeve should be the will.  When you look at those documents, keep in mind the first name of the woman you are seeking.   Sometimes, the woman's father would leave property to his daughter by her married name.  This is the best to find, because he names her as on of his children.   Next, you might find the father leaves property to her husband, not her.   Whenever a man is given property by a man with another name, you can be sure he is married to one of his daughters or sisters.

Trick #4

Trick number four:  the wishes and wills of women.  These may be hard to find, but sometimes, fortune will have smiled upon a woman and she will have had enough assets and time before she died to make a will.  If she leaves most of her property to a man that doesn't share her name, chances are he bears her maiden name.  He could be a cousin, a brother, a nephew, but he usually is related to her.    Also, land transfer records may show the same thing.  Why would Callie Hollars give Joshua Henson 100 acres for next to nothing?  He was her brother.

There is no sure fire way to find your female relatives, but with a few tricks, a lot of persistence, and a little luck, you will succeed.  If you have a trick to share, please let us know and we will post it here.

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