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Finding Female Ancestors

In honor of National Women's History Month, this article discusses sources that may help identify elusive female ancestors.


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In 1987, Congress declared March as National Women's History Month. This year also marks the celebration of the 85th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the United States. In honor of Women's History Month, this article will discuss various records that can help us find the names of our elusive female ancestors.

To continue researching a pedigree back in time, it is vital to find a woman's maiden name. But for many reasons, women can be extremely difficult to trace. Most legal documents were recorded in men's names, and until the second half of the 19th century even the census didn't list married women by name. Sometimes it seems impossible to find a woman's given name, much less her maiden name. But clues can be found in many types of documents.

The best place to find a woman's maiden name, of course, is her marriage record. This may be a marriage license, certificate of marriage, or newspaper notice. If you can't find a marriage record, the next best place is her death certificate or the birth or death records of her children. Although a woman may have died too early to have a death certificate, her children (particularly the younger ones) may have survived until the early 20th century when death records were commonly recorded. Always check all the death certificates; the information you need may be in the very last one!

If no official death record was kept, you may still be able to find an obituary for the woman in a local newspaper or church newspaper. Even if it doesn't explicitly state her maiden name, it may mention surviving brothers or nieces and nephews (who may be children of her brothers or married sisters).

One of the best types of records from the early 19th century are military pension records. A large percentage of men served in the Revolutionary War, and their widows were eligible for pensions. These records may include a woman's full name, birthplace, marriage date and place, and information about children.

Other records that may be helpful are wills and land records. For a long time a woman couldn't own land unless she was a widow, when she could inherit land based either on the deceased husband's will or, if he died intestate, she received one-third of his real estate as her dower right1. Check court records for wills, estate proceedings, and division of property. Also look for land records, particularly where the deed index says "et ex" which is Latin for "and wife," or "et al" which means "and others." These particular records will include more names than just the husband's. After a man died, his widow or children may have sold the property months or years later, so continue to search the deeds.

If land records are unavailable, you can try tax records. Because taxes were paid annually, these can be a good source for the years between censuses. After a man died, the taxes were probably paid under the woman's name, even if the estate hadn't been officially settled by the court yet.

Another clue may be found in names. When children have unusual given names (such as Erskin or Azur), they may be family names from either parent's side. Children's middles names may be the mother's maiden name or other family surnames. Also, some ethnic groups and nationalities had traditional naming patterns for their sons and daughters, so being aware of these patterns may help you identify possible parents. If you suspect certain people to be a woman's brothers or parents, look for their death certificates, wills or obituaries which may prove or disprove your theory.

Finding a woman's maiden name may be difficult, but if you know where to look you can usually find the information or clues needed to be successful. Good luck!

A great source for more information is:

Christina Kassabian Schaefer, The Hidden Half of the Family. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1999. This book contains information about laws in each state and extensive bibliographies for further reading and research.

1The dower right was the share of a deceased husband's real estate to which his widow was entitled after his death.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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