D o you have female ancestors who seem to disappear and remain hidden no matter how you approach the problem? Are you attempting to tie a maiden name to a married woman? That can be rough. Figuring out a given name? That can be just as difficult!
The truth is, between name changes, marriages and remarriages, divorce, and the fact that women tended to assume their husband’s identity, women can very easily become elusive in your research.
Tracing maternal lines doesn't always have to be difficult. In most cases, they probably weren't actually trying to hide from you! You may just need to step back, take a break, and approach research in a different, more creative, way.
So, take that break and come back ready to research! We’ve scoured our brains and the internet to put together our top twenty one ideas for finding even your most elusive female ancestors.
1] Dig Deep with Timelines
Write down any known major events that happened in the life of your female ancestor and use those guide your research.
Don’t forget about life changing events other than the typical birth, marriage, and death! Did your female ancestor lose a child, spouse, or close family member? Did your ancestor participate in a community event or effort? Could a weather event, natural disaster, or epidemic affected her?
Remember these types of events, as these types of scenarios are normally what guide life decisions.
We've written a few examples of atypical life changing events to the left (or below if you are on mobile).
2] Research The Communities She Lived In & The People In Them
Knowledge of the fact that Bakerton, West Virginia is directly across the river from Dargan and Samples Manor, Maryland and the fact that men in these communities would boat across to work in the quarries explains why Bakerton residents tended to marry Washington County residents from these two areas.
3] Even Housewives Were Involved In Community Activities
The average housewife was rarely just a housewife.
A great place to find community activities and organizations for your female ancestor's time period is newspapers. Scan the pages of the paper for organizations, clubs, events, etc. which she may have been a part of.
4] Learn The Laws Surrounding Women On A County & State Level
Most laws regarding women were made on a county and state level. Without knowing these laws, you may end up on a wild goose chase searching for records that don’t exist, or records that don't include your female ancestor. What if the brick wall buster you have been searching for is written in a record set you've mistakenly ignored, thinking that she couldn't have been included?
Learning the laws our female ancestors abided by would be easy if all of your female ancestors lived in one particular place. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. What is a genealogist to do? Even a lawyer can't remember every law.
Learn the laws of the majority -- laws that tended to be in widespread use. Use those laws to guide your research. If you have many ancestors from a particular area, learn the laws of applicable time periods in that area. For everything else, refer to a reference, either from an outside source or one that you have created yourself.
A lifesaver for me has been The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women's Genealogy.
5] Check For An Occupation Previously Unknown
If the female ancestor you are searching for lived during a period of war, a quick search for alternative occupations in the area or a "side hustle" in the newspapers is especially important, and even more so if the breadwinner of her family was a soldier.
Let’s take a quick peek at one of my own female ancestors, Laura Ellen Lewis Welsh, a housewife.
During her downtime, she would watch wrestling (once she owned a TV), but she would also bake cakes and sell them to the quarry workers. Her cakes were the talk of the town! Therefore, her home bakery side hustle was well documented.
P.S. Some of Laura's amazing cake recipes are on this site!
6] Take Another Look At Divorce Records
Divorces were more common than we are lead to believe. Does your elusive female ancestor seem to suddenly drop off the face of the earth? Is she no longer living with her husband?
Even if she claimed on census records that she was widowed, unless you can find proof of a death, try taking a peek at divorce files.
7] Find Her In The Newspaper
Don’t just check death and marriage sections! Many newspapers had a “community news” section which even went as far as to say who was visiting who the prior weekend!
Check articles and other columns as well; it is possible your female ancestor sent in something to be published or did something notable to have an article written about her or including her.
8] Use Obituaries
Can’t find a married name? Pull out the obituaries!
Search for her parents, siblings, in-laws, husband, children, and aunts and uncles in obituaries. It is very possible that she was named in an obituary by her first name, maiden name, or married name.
Annie Gertrude Murphy and Thomas Buchanan Welsh had a daughter Annie Gertrude Welsh.
I couldn’t find the daughter anywhere after she had left her parent’s home! She seemed to disappear, and my last thought was that she must have passed away -- but I couldn’t find any sort of record of her death.
It was only when I found her mother’s full obituary that I discovered she had married an Ingram, and her line has proved extremely easy to uncover since.
9] Don’t Forget Nicknames
Could your Mary be hiding under the name of Mollie or Polly? Possibly.
Search record sets a second time using possible nicknames, and you may just be able to find your female ancestor. Cross reference other information about the person to confirm your findings.
Although most cases are much more extreme than this one by way of odd nicknames, Thomas and Annie had another daughter, Catharine Irene. Catharine was another brick wall within that particular family. Come to find out, once she left her parent’s home she only went by Katie.
Katie married an Eichelberger and moved right across the river. She wasn’t really hiding after all! Katie's sister, Annie, from the previous example, moved close to Katie after Annie's marriage to an Ingram.
10] Don't Ditch the Deeds & Land!
Okay, let’s be real. Your female ancestor probably didn’t have any property holdings of her own, depending on the time period you are searching in (although she very well could have!).
But, she may be listed alongside her husband as a grantee or grantor of a deed. Fathers may have granted an unmarried daughter an interest in property. Check to see who is selling property to a newly married couple. Could they be of relation?
Moral of the story, it’s always more than worth it to check! Even if the record isn’t the most probable for a particular person, the records may hold useful clues to uncovering identities!
11] Death Certificates
This one may seem obvious -- but stick with me here.
If a maiden name is the name that you seek, you might find your payday on the death certificates of your female ancestor’s children.
Also check the death certificate of her husband. While you're at it, remember to search once more for her own death certificate as well.
12] Look Into Wills & Probate Packets
Look for wills, estate distribution records, and other probate records, not only for the woman you are researching but also for the men in her life (or possibly, but slightly less likely, her mother, aunts, or sisters, too).
Her father may have left her or her husband property or money. Her father-in-law may have named her beside her husband in his will. Her brothers may have left her a piece of inherited property or named her otherwise in their wills.
Remember that it is less likely, depending on the time period, for a woman to have a will, especially if her husband was still living at the time of her death.
13] Is A Guardianship A Possibility?
Did your female ancestor’s husband pass away when she still had young children at home? The court system could have possibly appointed a legal guardian for her children, even if she herself was still very much alive.
The children usually continued to live with their mother (unless there was some kind of issue), as a guardianship was generally for the children’s property and not for the children themselves. So, still check these records even if in the next census the children were in her household.
Furthermore, the appointed guardians were more than likely to be relatives of the children -- it is possible to find maiden names this way if a brother or father of the female ancestor was appointed guardian.
14] Walk The Cemeteries
Do you know where your female ancestor’s parents or siblings are buried? Her husband or ex-husband or his family? Her children or even step-children or nieces and nephews? Walk around those cemeteries. She may be buried close by.
On the flip side of the coin, if you know where your female ancestor is buried, walk that cemetery. Who is buried near her? What surnames appear to repeat many of the same names as your female's family?
15] Think About Her Children’s Names
Are you having trouble locating the maiden name of an ancestor? Look to her children. Women often chose their own maiden name to be the middle name of one of their children. In some cases, they even used it as a first name!
Think about whether the names of her children follow any other naming conventions as well -- could her son have taken her father’s name? A daughter taken her mother’s or grandmother’s? Could she of named one of her children after one of her siblings or their spouse?
In the case of my great-great grandmother, Maggie, she chose to name her daughter Essie Tamson. Essie's first name was taken from Maggie's sister, and her middle name was taken from her Uncle John's first wife, who died young.
16] See Who Is Living With Her & Next Door
Are there older people living in your female ancestor’s household? They could be one of her parents, or her in-laws.
What about people of different surnames? Could they be of relation to the now married woman?
Have you thought about who is located next door? Have you looked into the possibility of a neighbor being of relation?
Often, newlywed couples moved into a parent’s household or right beside them. In times of war, many soldier wives moved back in with their parents or with their in-laws until their husband returned from war.
17] Are Multiple Marriages A Possibility?
Female ancestors are hard to track anyway -- but add multiple marriages and name changes to the mix and the difficulty begins to compound rapidly. Could your female have re-married after becoming a widow or a divorce? It wasn't uncommon for women to re-marry for livelihood, social status, or even love.
Martha Lee Flanagan first married James Myers, and was widowed in 1928. That same year, she married William Jackson Britner. Her name quickly changed from Flanagan to Myers to Britner. Keep in mind that this is a possibility!
18] Check The Census Only Using First Names
Check the census records for the woman and her parents, her husband, or her children using only their first names. It is possible they were listed under a different last name -- either by accident or by wishes.
Use other census information to prove that this is the family you are looking for such as birthplace, ages, and relationships.
19] Check Pension Records
Pension files of husband or children can contain a wealth of information on a female ancestor. A pension file may include her birth date, date and proof of marriage, her address as was current at that time, and possibly even her maiden name!
If her husband or a son was a military man, check for a pension record. (P.S. Some skilled labor occupations also came with documented pensions!)
20] Ask About Letters, Journals, and Diaries
Have you ever asked other family members if any memorabilia from your female ancestor’s life exists? Depending on when she lived, the chances may be slim. But you won't know if you don't ask!
Search the finding aids at college libraries and public libraries in the locations where your ancestor lived for manuscripts relating to your female ancestor and her family. Sometimes papers of even more distant relatives of your ancestor may mention her or give you a sliver of light on her life.
21] Naturally, Naturalization
Women typically did not file naturalization paperwork as she was normally blanketed under her husband’s naturalization.
With that being said, if you are looking for a maiden name of an immigrant female ancestor, find the date and place of her husband’s naturalization and hit the books. If she had brothers that immigrated as well, it is likely that they naturalized on the same date as her husband.
Creative and critical thinking are both key skills to overcoming research hurdles for all parts in your family line, but especially in finding your female ancestors.
Have any tips for finding female ancestors that we didn’t cover? Do you feel like we should expand on an idea above? Let us know about it! Please leave us a comment letting us know your best tips and creative ways that you have found an elusive female ancestor. Enjoy this article? Did this article help you? We’d appreciate a share!
In the meantime, Happy Researching!