Getting Started Research Tips

How to Overcome the Difficulties of Finding Female Ancestors

How to Overcome the Difficulties of Finding Female Ancestors

One of the biggest challenges in genealogy is the pursuit of female ancestors. This is because the females were so often absorbed into their husband’s families (assuming they got married), taking on their husband’s surnames, and losing their original identities in historical documents. You will often find a mention of a female ancestor in a historical document, but more often than not, she is referred to using only her first name or her first and married name. Too often, the maiden name is seemingly lost. While in some cases, it really may be lost, this usually is not the case. If you do your research right, you can uncover the maiden names and make the correct connections to your female ancestors’ families of origin. In doing so, you discover entire new branches of your family and learn more about your own origins.

Here are some techniques you can use to find those elusive female ancestors.

1. Look at the Wills of Neighbors

Back in days of old, men often married women who lived in their general vicinity. With transportation being slow and difficult, it was just simply easier to marry someone who lived nearby. Most men didn’t venture more than a few miles away to find a bride, and a lot of them married the nearest available women, who were their neighbors.

If you are looking for a female ancestor’s maiden name and are having trouble finding it, check the wills of the neighbors. One of them may be her father. If you find your female ancestor listed in the will, it will usually be by her married name, but will mention that she is the daughter of the person who wrote the will. This will give you the maiden name you desire. The surname of the person who wrote the will, if he is her father, will be her original surname before marriage.

Be sure to look at not just direct next door neighbors, but other men in the town who are of age to be her father. If you don’t have any luck in town, check the closest neighboring towns. Not everyone had a will, but if you find one mentioning your female ancestor, you’ve struck genealogical gold.

2. Look for the Marriage Record

The marriage record will usually have the maiden name of the bride on it. While there weren’t always official marriage licenses, counties often kept records of marriages. Some of these records go back to the 1700’s. In New England, they can go back into the 1600’s. Write to the county clerk where you believe the marriage took place. If you don’t know, you can make a reasonable guess based on where the husband lived. It will usually be in that county, or in the one of the counties directly bordering it.

Get a copy of the marriage record, if it still exists, and you will have the maiden name of your female ancestor. From there, you can start to research who her parents may have been… something which is much easier when you have a maiden name to use.

3. Examine the Names of Her Children

Even though women lost their maiden names through marriage, they often tried to preserve them in the names of their children. It was usually through a middle name, but sometimes a woman’s maiden name was given as a first name. Sons were the most common recipients of maiden names, though daughters could occasionally be given them.

Look at the first and middle names of all of the children. If any of them seems unusual, like it could be a surname, follow-up on it. Look at the census records of the area to see if you can find anyone with that name as a surname. If you find one or more families with that name as a surname, research them and any records associated with them to see if you can find a mention of your female ancestor being attached to them. You will be surprised at how often the names of the children reveal the origins of their mother.

4. Look at Other People Living in the Household in the Census Records

It wasn’t unusual in centuries past for many generations to live in one household. Look at the census records where your female ancestor is listed. See who else is living in the household. Are there people there who are older and with a different surname than the rest of the family? Later census records may say what their relationship is to the head of the household, but older census records will not reveal this. Be aware that these unknown people could be the wife’s parents or other relatives who share her maiden name, such as aunts, uncles, or grandparents. Follow up with research on these people and see if you can make a connection.

These are just a few of the ways you may trace the origins of your female ancestors. Start with these techniques, and you will get ideas for more methods as you discover more information. Even if it seems like there is a lack of records, there may not be. You just need to look in the right places. Your female ancestors are waiting for you to discover and preserve their origins. Get started on it today and see what treasures you uncover.

Will founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his Moneymaker surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)


  • Finding female ancestresses” maiden names has been frustrating for me,too. One way that I discovered one was when my 3 ggrandfather died intestate and his possessions were inventoried by the county courthouse. In his letters of administration his wife chose her brother as her executor. His surname gave me her maiden name. Another time my 6thggrandfather conveniently named each of his children in his will with the names of their spouses so I was able to see who the girls had married.

  • dee derrico, much of western kentucky was part of west virginia during the times you are searching. start searching the 1790 census for your surnames and follow them into kentucky. then, by all means do dna! i have made many assumptions by following surnames through popular migration trails to finally being proven with dna as no other records could be found. both your surnames are fairly well known so chances are good there are dna matches. search through ancestry or rootsweb or even in the area of wv &ky during the time frame and leave comments where possible. open up to other cobb/whittker’s and do the dna.

  • Who is your gg-grandmother/grandfather from Mrs. Whitteker/Cobb?

    What were the migration patterns in WV in your second brick wall?

  • I have one, a GGG grandmother, Philena Cobb Whitteker, who was married to Mr. Wm. Whittker when she was a
    widow of Mr. Unknown Cobb, in Boston in 1806, with no maiden name. She had two small children by Mr. Cobb,
    no birth records for her or the children. No death record when she died in Western Virginia in 1846, no burial found,
    no death notice or obituary, no marriage to Mr. Cobb found, no death of Mr. Cobb. Church records reveal nothing.
    No names of Cobb children mentioned, not even their gender, however found one son who died before 1850. Have done cluster on all those around her and the one son. Nothing found. Looks like she was dropped off by a flying saucer in Boston in 1805. Waiting for something new to come to light.

    Have another one, Mary Porter, maternal great grandmother. She was also a widow when she appeared in one 1880 Charleston WV census with her one daughter, my maternal GM, Nevora Porter. No re-marriage or death records for
    Mary, no more census records, no church records. No death or marriage records for Mary or her husband, no burial records either. Cluster has been done, revealing nothing. Names of Neva’s children have been researched, no cigar. The 1880 claims that both Mary and Neva were born in WV, however, Neva claimed on all records she generated that she and both parents were born in KY. She was b. 04 Jul 1871 and birth records for this time in KY are virtually non-existent. Even went so far as to research every Porter family in bordering counties of KY and then some. Also waiting for something new to come to light.

    Any suggestions? Am thinking right now of doing DNA.

Leave a Comment