There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles online about various ways to discover the maiden names of our female ancestors. It is a common genealogical topic because women are so often merged completely with their husbands in the historical records that their original identities disappear completely. The cultural norms of times past, going from the introduction of surnames about a thousand years ago to only a generation or two ago for most of us meant that women normally never referred to their maiden names again after marriage. They often didn’t even go by their first names, either. “Mrs. John Smith” was a common way for a woman to introduce herself, just putting a “Mrs.” on her husband’s name. It was entirely possible that someone could know her for years, and be good friends with her, without ever knowing her actual name. Most of the time, no one would even think to ask.
Thank goodness times are changing. It will make it easier for our descendants to locate female ancestors from our generation going forward. Many women are now keeping their maiden names upon marriage, hyphenating them with their husband’s last name, changing their middle name to their maiden name, and using other ways to keep their maiden name alive and in the records as belonging to them. However, if we want to find our female ancestors, we’re going to have to do some searching. While finding a maiden name is sometimes as easy as looking at a death certificate, marriage certificate, obituary, or marriage announcement in an old newspaper, or even researching someone’s will who names a married daughter and thus reveals the maiden name, it is not always so simple.
If you have tried all of the most common suggestions given in most genealogical publications for finding maiden names of female ancestors and have still come up empty-handed, here are a few more suggestions for you that may help you finally connect with that elusive female family line.
Match Up Birth Records and Marriage Records
If your ancestor lived in an area that kept excellent records that are still preserved, this is a good trick to use. New England is a perfect place to use this technique, actually, but there are other places it will work, as well. You probably already have a good idea of your female ancestor’s age, or at least an age range. Look through the birth records of the town she lived in as a child, if you know it. Check the years that are candidates for her birth year. If you only find one person with her first name as a candidate, she will almost certainly match up in the marriage records. If you find more than one candidate, write those names down in a list. Then, look through the marriage records in the decade before and after her most likely “marriage age” window….usually between the ages of 18 and 23. Look for a woman with her name marrying a man with her known married name. You may have to check the records of some of the surrounding towns, too, as not every person married someone from their hometown, but often married within the general regional area. When you have a match between the birth records and the marriage records for someone in the same place and about the same age as your female ancestor, you’ve found the maiden name.
Look at the Middle Names of Her Children
Women of centuries past often tried to keep their maiden names alive by giving them to their children as middle names. In my own family, there is a middle name used for men that I have traced back to the maiden name of a distant great-grandmother born in the early 1700’s. It’s been passed down this whole time and continues to be in the newest generation. Any middle name that sounds like it could be a surname is worth investigating. Look for neighbors the woman had after she was married. Do any of them have surnames that match the middle names of any of her children? They might be relatives. Look at her husband’s neighbors when he was a child. Do any of them have surnames that match those middle names? He could have grown up near his future bride (one of my own sets of great-great grandparents were next door neighbors as children). Check the wills of any neighbors with surnames that match her children’s middle names, too. You just might find mention of her, and a confirmation of her maiden name.
Do Autosomal DNA Research
This is a modern research technique, but it can work wonders. Autosomal DNA tests all areas of your heritage, not just a male or female line. If you do the test with a company that allows genetic matching, such as 23andme, Ancestry, or FamilyTreeDNA, you might find some genetic cousins from the area where your elusive female ancestor lived. Chances are, they are related to her, too… if not directly than through another common ancestor. If you contact them and ask for information on that side of the family, they may have a family Bible or other confirmation of her maiden name. If they don’t, then comparing your family trees, and working back to your common ancestor together may reveal it, or a name you suspect to be her maiden name. You can then confirm it by looking to see if you have any close genetic matches with the same surname as the one you suspect to be your female ancestors. I’ve confirmed two suspected maiden names in my family tree using genetic matches on autosomal DNA testing websites.
These methods require more time and intensive research than you may be used to. But, if you put the time into doing the research, and are fastidious about it, the chances are pretty high that you will come up with that elusive maiden name for your mysterious female ancestor. That, of course, will make all the research worth it.