How to Research the Women in Your Family Tree
The individual identities of women who lived prior to the twentieth century are often very tangled in those of their husbands, both by law and by custom. In many places, women were not allowed to own real estate in their name, to sign legal documents, or to participate in government. Men wrote the histories, paid the taxes, participated in the military and left wills. Men were also the ones whose surname was carried into the next generation by the children. As a result, female ancestors are often neglected in family histories and genealogies—listed with only a first name and approximate dates for birth and death. They are our “invisible ancestors.”
This neglect, while understandable, is still inexcusable. Half of all of our ancestors were women. Each female in our family tree provides us with a new surname to research and an entire branch of new ancestors to discover. Women were the ones who bore the children, carried on family traditions, and ran the household. They were teachers, nurses, mothers, wives, neighbors and friends. They deserve to have their stories told – to be more than just a name on a family tree.
So how can you, as a genealogist, locate someone who is “invisible?” Tracing the female side of your family tree can be a bit difficult and frustrating, but is also one of the most rewarding challenges of genealogy research. By following a few basic research methods, with an added measure of patience and creativity, you’ll soon be learning about all of the women who passed their genes down to you. Just remember, don’t give up! If your female ancestors had given up, you might not be here today.
Generally, the single best place to locate a maiden name for a female ancestor is on her marriage record. Marriage information can be found in a variety of records including marriage banns, marriage licenses, marriage bonds, marriage certificates, marriage announcements and civil registration (vital) records. Marriage licenses are the least common form of marriage record to be found today because these were usually given to the couple being married and have been lost over time. The paperwork generated by the application for a marriage license has usually been preserved in church and public records, however, and may provide some clues as to your ancestor’s identity. Marriage registers and vital records are usually the most common and complete records of marriage.
Marriage Records in the United States
Marriage records in the United States are usually found at the county and town clerks’ offices, but in some cases they are found in the records of churches, the military and in the state offices of vital records and boards of health. Find out which office holds the marriage records in the locality where the couple was living at the time of their marriage or, if they resided in different localities, in the bride’s county or town of residence. Look for all records of a marriage including marriage certificates, applications, licenses, and bonds. In some areas all documents generated by a marriage will be found combined into the same record, in others they will be listed in separate books with separate indexes. If you’re researching African-American ancestors, some counties maintained separate marriage books for blacks and whites in the years following the Civil War.
Marriage Records in Europe
In many European countries, church records are the most common sources for marriage records, though Civil Registration became the norm in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Civil marriages are often indexed on a national level, though it is very helpful if you know the province, region, parish, etc. in which the marriage took place. In the church, most couples were married by banns, rather than marriage licenses, mainly because licenses cost more than banns. Banns may be recorded in the marriage register or in a separate banns register.
Marriage Records in Canada
Marriage records in Canada are primarily the responsibility of the individual provinces and most were recording marriages by the early 1900s. Earlier marriage records can usually be found in the church registers.
Details Found in Marriage Records
If you find a record of the marriage for your female ancestor, then be sure to take note of all pertinent information, including the names of the bride and groom, places of residence, ages, occupations, date of the marriage, the person who performed the marriage, witnesses, etc. Every little detail can lead to new information. Witnesses to a marriage, for example, are often related to the bride and groom. The name of the person who performed the marriage ceremony may help to identify a church, a lead to possible church records of the marriage, plus other church records for the family. The surety, or person who put up money to guarantee that the marriage will take place, on many marriage bonds was a relative of the bride, usually a father or brother. If the couple was married at a residence, you may find a notation of the location. This could provide a valuable clue to the bride’s father’s name since young ladies often married at home. Women who remarried were often listed by their previous married name rather than their maiden name. However, a maiden name can usually be ascertained from the father’s surname.
Check Divorce Records Too
Prior the the 20th century divorces were often difficult (and expensive) to obtain, especially for women. They can, however, sometimes provide clues to maiden names when no other sources exist. Look for divorce decrees in the court in charge of administering divorce decrees for the area in question. Even if your female ancestor never received a divorce, that doesn’t mean she didn’t file for one. It was fairly common in earlier years for a woman to be denied a divorce, despite claims of cruelty or adultery – but the paperwork from the filing may still be found among the records of the court.
The cemetery may be the only place where you will find proof of the existence of a female ancestor. This is especially true if she died young and had little time to leave official records of her existence.
Clues Among the Stones
If you have found your female ancestor through a published cemetery transcription, then try to visit the cemetery yourself to view the tombstone. You may find family members buried in the same row, or in neighboring rows. This is especially true if she died within the first few years of her marriage. If your female ancestor died in childbirth, then her child is usually buried with her or next to her. Look for any surviving burial records, though their availability will vary widely by time and place. If the cemetery is associated with a church, then be sure to check the church burial and funeral records as well.
Details Found in Cemetery Records
While at the cemetery, make note of the exact spelling of your female ancestor’s name, the dates of her birth and death, and her spouse’s name, if listed. Be cautious, however, when jumping to conclusions based on this information as tombstone inscriptions are often incorrect. Also keep in mind that women married men of the same given name more frequently than you might think, so don’t just assume that the name on her tombstone is not her maiden name. Continue looking for evidence in other sources.
While census records will not usually provide you with the maiden name of your female ancestor, they should not be overlooked for the wealth of other information and clues that they provide about women and their lives. It may be difficult, however, to locate your female ancestor in earlier census records, unless she was divorced or widowed and listed as head of household. Beginning about the mid-1800s in most countries (e.g. 1850 in the U.S., 1841 in the U.K.), the search gets a little easier, as names are usually given for each individual in the household.
Details Found in Census Records
Once you locate your female ancestor in the census, be sure to copy the entire page on which she is listed. To be on the safe side you may even want to copy the page directly before and after hers as well. Neighbors may be relatives and you will want to keep an eye on them. Make a note of the names of your female ancestor’s children. Women often named their children after their mother, father, or favorite brothers & sisters. If any of the children are listed with middle names, these may also provide an important clue, as women often passed down their family name to their children. Pay close attention to the people listed in the household with your ancestor, especially if they are listed with a different surname. She may have taken in a child of a deceased brother or sister, or may even have an aged or widowed parent staying with her. Also make a note of the occupation of your female ancestor, and whether she was listed as working outside of the home.
Land records are some of the earliest available genealogical records in the United States. Land was important to people. Even when courthouses and other record repositories burned, many deeds were rerecorded because it was considered essential to keep track of who owned the land. Deed records are usually indexed for this same reason.
A woman’s legal rights varied depending on whether she lived in an area governed by civil or common law. In countries and areas which practiced civil law, such as Louisiana, and most of Europe excluding the UK, a husband and wife were considered co-owners of community property, which was managed by the husband. A married woman could also manage and control her own separate property. In common law, which originated in England and was carried to its colonies, a woman had no legal rights in the marriage and her husband controlled everything, including property she herself brought to the marriage. Married women in areas under common law are difficult to find in early legal dealings, such as land transactions, as they were not allowed to engage in contracts without their husband’s approval. Early deeds for married couples may only give you the name of the husband with either no mention of his wife, or only a first name. If your female ancestor was widowed or divorced, however, you may find her conducting her own land transactions.
Women’s Dower Rights
When a couple sold land in the nineteenth century, the woman is often identified due to her right of dower. A dower was a portion of the husband’s land that was allotted to his wife upon his death. In many areas this interest was one-third of the estate, and was usually only for the widow’s lifetime. The husband could not will this land away from his wife and, if he sold any property during his life, his wife had to sign a release of her dower interest. Once a widow inherited money, possessions, or property, she was allowed to manage them for herself.
Clues to Look for in Land Records
When you are examining deed indexes for your surnames, look for the Latin phrases “et ux.” (and wife) and “et al.” (and others). Examining deeds with these designations may provide the names of females, or names of siblings or children. This will often occur when land is divided upon someone’s death, and can lead you to a will or probate record.Another area to watch for is when a man or a couple sold land to your ancestors for a dollar, or some other small consideration. The ones selling the land (the grantors) are more than likely the parents or relatives of your female ancestor.