Sometimes, the names of the wives of male ancestors are obvious and well-documented. Other times, they are mysteries, with no apparent documentation available. Most of American history, and indeed, the history of the world, has been male-focused. Men have been the ones who had most of the power and power positions, and the laws favored them. With so little legal attention paid to women, it was easy for a woman’s name to be lost to the mists of time. How many times have you come across a will in your genealogy research where a man just referred to his wife as “my loving wife” or something similar, without even a first name given? Even when first names are given, maiden names rarely get attention in historical records. When a woman married, she became part of her new husband’s family, and most traces of her former identity were lost to future researchers. It can be frustrating when you are trying to research your female ancestors.
The good news is that there are some techniques you can use to tease out the names of those elusive wives in your family tree. While there may be some cases where the first name, maiden name, or both of a female ancestor really are lost to time, you can often bring these women back from obscurity by using one or more of these alternative record sources.
1. The Wills of Neighbors and Other Relatives
It was not uncommon in centuries past for men to marry women who lived near them. Travel was an imposing prospect in the days before trains and cars. It was all done on horseback, by a horse-drawn vehicle, or by foot, and going more than a few miles could take days or longer. Marrying neighbors was simply more practical and convenient.
Look at census records to see where your male ancestors live. Look around at who lived near them. Then look for any wills that may exist for those neighbors. You will be surprised at how many times the will of a neighbor will mention the first name of a daughter and mention that she is the wife of a certain person. You could easily find your female ancestor mentioned in the will of a neighbor as his daughter who married your male ancestor.
Looking at the wills of relatives of the male ancestor may give clues, too. If the male ancestor died before the wife, his relatives may mention the wife’s first name in their wills. Sometimes the maiden name may also be mentioned, or you can infer the maiden name by the will mentioning she was the daughter of a certain man (and then you get her father’s name, too, which will give you a new avenue of research).
2. Published Town or County Histories
Back in the late 1800’s, town and county histories were popular. Much like the Who’s Who books of today, people would pay to include their biographies in these books, and those biographies usually included some kind of family history. If you look at the towns and counties where your male ancestor with the elusive wife lived, you may find a published history of that place.
Maybe your male ancestor has a biography in it that mentions his wife’s first name, maiden name, or both. Or perhaps one of the couple’s children has a biography in it that includes the names of his parents, including the maiden name of his mother. The sections of the books that talk about the founding of the town or county may also mention your mysterious female ancestor by name.
3. Military Pension Records
Military pension records are a good source of first and maiden names for female ancestors. If the wife outlived the husband and applied for a pension, she was required to prove her marriage to her husband. This would mean either including a marriage certificate, or one or more affidavits from people who knew of the marriage first-hand and could corroborate the details on the marriage given by the woman. In either instance, the woman would be required to use her first name in the application, and mention her maiden name in her proof of the marriage.
Sometimes, a mysterious wife’s name can even be found in other people’s pension records. I have a great-great-great-great grandfather whose wife’s name I have been searching for a couple of decades. I know her general age range from the 1830 and 1840 census records, but she seems to have outlived her husband, and since I didn’t know her first name or whether she remarried, it was not possible to search for her in later census records where her name would have been included.
I also knew this male ancestor had at least three daughters, whose ages I knew from those same census records, but whose names I did not know. I did, however, know the names of the sons of this ancestor. Recently, a random Google search (to see if any new information on this family had appeared online) revealed a pension record kept by the historical society of the county this family lived in. It was written by one of the known sons of this great-great-great-great grandfather, and he was writing the letter to support his younger sister’s claim for a pension on her husband’s Civil War service. In the letter, her brother states he was present at her marriage, which took place at the home of their mother, Rachel.
So, through the pension record of someone else entirely, I found not only the name of one of my ancestor’s elusive daughters (as well as the name of the man she married), I finally learned his wife’s first name… Rachel! I’m still looking for proof of her maiden name, but have a good idea of what it might be through several sources of indirect evidence.
As you can see, discovering an elusive female ancestor’s name is not always impossible. In fact, it can be done more often than you realize. You just have to look at alternative sources and keep exploring those sources until you find that name. You may discover that the name really wasn’t ever recorded anywhere. However, more often, you will discover the name for which you’ve been searching for so long.
Will Moneymaker 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 surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)