With Mother’s Day just around the corner, I started thinking about my own Mom as well as my female ancestors. Our maternal branches do not always receive the same focus as the paternal lines when doing our family research. Is it because it isn’t the “name” we were born with? Or is it because it becomes challenging to find those maiden names? I know I have some female ancestors who remain mysteries, lost to history. At least that is true for now; I’m always hopeful. Before you give up on finding the women in your family, let’s look at some tricks and tips for finding them.
When we search for ancestors, the tried and true places to look are census, birth, marriage and death records. When we look at these records when searching for our female ancestors, we may need to take a different slant.
Census records provide a wealth of information including the members of a family unit, neighbors and approximate ages (sometimes even the birth month). Depending on your ancestor, the ages may or may not be accurate but at least they provide a timeframe. Missing is your ancestor’s maiden name. However, keep in mind that the census record may become more useful once you do discover the maiden name. Families often stayed in the same neighborhood. You might find a brother or parent. A tidbit to tuck away.
Well, if we could find the birth record, we wouldn’t have the missing maiden name problem. <smile> The good news is the if you know the maiden name of a female ancestor, you’ll be able to find the maiden name of her mother in the birth records. What if you can’t find the known female ancestor’s birth record? Remember to look for birth records of her siblings…they may hold the key to finding the maiden name of her mother.
Marriage Records include the maiden name of your female ancestor and her groom. This information is considered a primary source because the couple themselves have provided the information. If you’re fortunate, the couple’s parents may also be noted. This is more often the case in church records.
More and more death records are becoming available online through sites like Ancestry, FamilySearch and others. They are helpful in solving those maiden name mysteries. The next generation (parents of the deceased) may or may not be there. For some reason, I have a lot of ancestors with the last name of “unknown”! Death records include address clues and hopefully spouse information. The family information is secondary information because the deceased did not provide it. It might have been a spouse, child, nephew, cousin or niece who did not know or remember the names of the deceased person’s parents. (Thus my ‘’Unknown” family.) <smile>
If you haven’t checked newspapers, please do. Look beyond your immediate ancestor to their siblings. Unfortunately, in the United States it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to only be acknowledge as Mrs. John Smith instead of Mary Smith...even in their own obituary! Not every obituary will include her parents’ names, but many old obituaries talk about who attended the funeral and out of town guests. These are clues to potential maiden names. And remember to check out the local happenings. If Mrs. John Smith is visiting her parents, the Jones, that might be your clue to help prove out her maiden name. Remember to check out wills, military pensions* and land records…you never know what key information might be hidden there. *A Civil War Widow’s Pension provided proof of a marriage and maiden name for one of my ancestors. It’s worth checking.
Researching beyond the United States
If you haven’t crossed the pond yet and are now ready to start, there are many records available online. I’ve recently been researching in Luxembourg and France. The good news in these locations is that the birth, marriage and death records all include the women’s maiden name as well as their spouse. The marriage records that I’ve explored also include the parents’ names, sometimes their occupations, town and if the parent was deceased the date they died. All is useful information to help your search.
Looking at Norwegian records can be challenging but they too call out maiden names. The challenge with Norwegian records is that they use a patronymic system which means that the husband, wife, sons and daughters would different last names! It is helpful in that women went by their patronymic name their whole lives, but it does make it a bit tricky to identify family members. On this excellent site, Johan I. Borgos explains the Norwegian naming system in an easy and straightforward way.
Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for finding your female ancestors. There are plenty of books and online resources to explore. While maiden names can be a mystery, as family historians I think we enjoy solving those puzzles. Good luck with your mysterious maiden names. And Happy Mother’s Day!
“Remember me in the family tree
My name, my days, my strife,
Then I’ll ride upon the wings of time
And live an endless life.”
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.