During my nearly twenty years of digging through census records and birth certificates, one common brick wall tends to be a female ancestor. It can be challenging to find the maiden name or any identifying information for a mother, wife or any other “pink leaf” in the tree.
For a number of reasons, women have historically been treated as mere bit players in the lives of men. <insert eye roll> In most historical records, property is listed under the man’s name, men ran businesses, employed workers, and generally ran the world. For a man, surnames were constant throughout his life whereas a woman typically changed her name every time she married and her children took the father’s name into subsequent generations. And now, our aunts and grandmothers seem to have lost their very identity in the
But all hope is not lost! I’ve found several tactics particularly useful when trying to uncover more information about a lost female relative:
- Marriage Record: I know, I know. You’ve done an Ancestry.com search and have come up empty-handed. But despite the fact that we live in 2020, not everything is digitized. Far from it. There is still so much more buried away in old churches, funeral homes, and teeny tiny old archives. Reach out to the local church or historical society in the area your ancestors lived and request any records they may have. Or better yet, take a visit directly (when #covid lets up, of course).
- Children’s Names: Unusual middle names – or sometimes even first names – were often the surname of the mother. If you’ve spotted a unique name in a census record, try broadening your search to include local records using that name as a surname. You’d be surprised how often this happened and it can be a rich information source.
- Neighbors: By tracking neighbors, friends or family, you can sometimes find that she has been listed as a witness in a marriage ceremony or as a godparent in baptismal records. Another hot tip? Go will hunting (how ’bout them apples?). Check out the wills of male neighbors who may be around the age her father would have been. If you find your female ancestor listed, it will typically be by her married name but will mention that she is the daughter of the person who wrote the will. And voila – maiden name found.
- “Extras” on the Census: It was common back in earlier generations for mothers, siblings or in-laws to live in the same household. This is particularly true for elderly mothers who may have otherwise been on their own. I’ve been able to identify or corroborate additional family links by looking at who else was listed together on the census records.
None of these are failsafe, but hopefully it gets you one step closer to unlocking that new branch on your family tree. Happy hunting!