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Finding Your Mother's Roots in Maiden Names

If everyone descends from both a mother and a father, why are so many family trees rather thin on the maternal side?


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Ancestor's First Name
Ancestor's Last Name
Case Study: Harriet Nelson

If everyone descends from both a mother and a father, why are so many family trees rather thin on the maternal side? Part of the problem is the time-honored tradition of replacing maiden names with married names – a custom which essentially masks the identities of half your ancestors.

To help us illustrate the problem, as well as the solution, we picked Harriet Nelson – star of Ozzie and Harriet and one of the most famous moms in television history. She'll help us demonstrate how, with a little detective work, a maternal line can be traced back four generations.

Step 1: Find death and/or marriage records
To find Harriet's maiden name, we checked first for her death record.

Since it was a well-documented fact that Harriet died in Laguna Beach, California, we searched California death records for "Harriet Nelson." Lucky for us, her death record listed her birth name, Peggy Lou Snyder, as well as her birthplace – Des Moines, Iowa.

Note: In many cases, marriage records are even better than death records because they frequently name the bride's parents. A marriage record is typically housed in the vital records office of the county in which the couple was married. If you're unsure of the location, you can make an educated guess based on the birthplaces of the couple's children.

Or you can search for marriage and death records online at

Step 2: Get a copy of the birth certificate
Once we had Harriet's maiden name and her birthplace, we started searching for her birth certificate in the county in which she was born. Once found, her birth certificate listed the names of both parents – Roy Hilliard Snyder and Hazel Dell McNutt.

You can also find birth records online at

Step 3: Search the census
In Harriet's case, we managed to find her maternal grandparents using some basic knowledge of census records.

Searching online census databases, we found Hazel McNutt listed with her parents in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census. Suddenly, we had another complete generation consisting of Harriet's maternal grandparents – Susan and George McNutt.

Since Hazel was born in Iowa, we decided to search Iowa state records for Susan and George's wedding certificate – which listed Susan's maiden name as "Shunk."

After searching the 1880 U.S. Federal Census for "Susan Shunk," we found her in the household of her parents, Harriet and Alexander Shunk. A little more digging through vital records brought us Harriet's maiden name – Putnam.

And there you have it … four generations of Harriet Nelson's maternal family tree.

Are you ready to start searching for the females in your family? Start today at

Source Information:, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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