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families (assuming they got married), taking on their husband’s surnames, and losing their original identities in historical documents. You will often find a mention of a female ancestor in a historical document, but more often than not, she is referred to using only her first name or her first and married name.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 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 names, 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 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!)