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Elusive Female Ancestors

Genealogy can be a thoroughly rewarding hobby, but it can also be rather aggravating. That’s especially true for female relatives in the past. Here are some tips to help you in your search:

  • Remember to check for different names – pet names used within the family, formal names, religious names, and nicknames. I just did a search for a lady named Alethea. After her husband died, not only did the census taker misspell her last name (Hambulton instead of Hamilton), they used her nickname – Lethey instead of Alethea. For nicknames, try:
  • Search for titles – sometimes a woman’s title was used instead of her full name:
    • Mrs., Ms., or Miss
    • Widow
    • Nurse
    • Goody or Goodwife (a Puritan title).
  • Use her initials – i.e. search for J.L. Watts instead of Jama Watts. You might try combining this one with the title, as well. AND try her husband’s initials.
  • Don’t forget those nasty spelling variations for both first and last names. You might even check names that are close to your relative’s. In my Kindergarten yearbook, I was listed as James.
  • If the woman immigrated, don’t forget to search for initial last names – it could be either a complete change of last name or just a spelling variant. It could be an Americanization or even a disagreement among relatives:
    • There’s immigrants (Shaheen vs George)
    • Disagreements (Johnson vs Johnston)
    • Others that make you scratch your head (Albertson to Orberson)
  • Check headstones – if you can find the headstone of a husband or other relative, you might be able to locate a female relative. Check FindAGrave.com, cemetery listings or just visit cemeteries. On FindAGrave.com and in some cemetery listings, you might get lucky and find that the author or contributor has left information like a maiden name, given name or even names of parents.
  • Check the wills of husbands and fathers – there’s a chance that a male relative could have left land or other property to a daughter or his widow.
  • Check pension records – a widow might have applied for her husband’s military pension.
  • Check tax records, especially if your male relative served in the military. A lack of income with the husband in the war might mean that the wife went to work and now has some property to her name.
  • Try including the phrase “maiden name” or “maiden name was” when searching. In “8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry,” the author states that including that phrase helped her find the maiden name of an ancestor that she’d previously not been able to find.
  • Check obituaries and death records. A well-written obituary or a fully filled out death certificate can be a game changer when doing research.
  • Check marriage records – these can be found in a variety of places and, if you’re lucky, contain the name of both parents. Don’t just check for official marriage records, try:
    • Engagement and wedding announcements in the local paper
    • Church newsletters and records
    • Obituaries
    • Family bibles and journals
    • Divorce decrees
    • Wills, etc.
  • Census records – since so many people married others who lived close to them, check the households of neighbors living close to the soon-to-be husband. You might find the wife living close by! You might also find a widow living with relatives, such as a brother or sister. This might reveal not only siblings’ names, but also a maiden name.
  • School records – These could be records actually kept at the school or county school censuses.
  • Children’s names – Often the maiden name of mother or other surnames belonging to her ancestors were used as names for the children, especially when it came to middle names.

Don’t forget to cross-reference any items you find. Just as with any other documents you come across, it’s best to verify each bit of info as much as you can.

References