One of the most challenging stumbling blocks to genealogy research is tracing female lines. The tradition of women taking their husbands’ surnames means that a woman loses that link to her family line when she gets married.
In the past, female ancestral lines meant little because women held little importance. The male line was all that mattered for inheritance purposes and for carrying on the family surname.
Historically, women became extensions of their husbands. Even in this day and age, many newspapers label wedding pictures as “Mr. and Mrs. John Martin” rather than “John and Marie Martin.”
They also list surviving women in obituaries as “Mrs. John Martin.” Up until fairly recently, any newspaper article mentioning a married woman would generally refer to her as Mrs. with her husband’s name.
Almost everyone researching genealogy today realizes the importance of researching female lines, but we run into snags because of that pesky maiden name problem.
Here are 10 clever ways of figuring out maiden names of your female ancestors.
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First and Middle Names of Descendants
Past generations actually did honor the female line by often giving a child the mother’s maiden name as a middle name. It might be the firstborn son, the firstborn child of either sex or any child born to the marriage.
Sometimes, the child ends up being called by his or her middle name, which was the maiden name of his or her mother or another female antecedent. For example, my ancestor Samuel McKee Stiteler went by McKee (his middle name). The name McKee was the maiden name of one of his female antecedents.
People Who Live Close By In Census Records
Search US Federal Census records and look for the last names of people who live nearby. Then, conduct searches with the first name of your ancestor and the last names of folks on the same page as her census record.
Online obituary collections can help you locate that missing maiden name. The maiden name might be listed right there, or the obituary might list the woman’s surviving brothers.
Don’t just look at the woman’s obituary, though. The obituaries of her husband and children might also list her maiden name.
In newspapers, books or other publications, if a woman’s unmarried surname was Davis, a write-up might mention her as “the former Madeline Davis” or “Madeline Straw nee Davis” or “Madeline (Davis) Straw.”
Findagrave.com offers free and bountiful genealogy research with pictures of gravestones and dates of birth and death. A community of users adds information to Findagrave.com, sometimes including women’s maiden names.
In my experience, these additions have been reliable about 95 percent of the time.
If you can find a birth certificate, baptismal record or birth listing for one of the woman’s children, you might see her maiden name. These types of documents often list the mother’s maiden name.
Family Members in Census Records
View census records online at Ancestry.com and look for an adult living with the family who has a different last name. It could be an unmarried sibling of the wife or maybe her widowed mom or dad.
Unfortunately, prior to 1850, only the head of household is listed in U.S. Census records. That would be the husband if he was still alive.
I’ve found a number of women’s maiden names from the death certificates of their offspring. Many states’ death certificates include lines for both the father’s name and the mother’s maiden name.
If you can locate your female ancestor’s marriage certificate, you’ll likely find her maiden name. This also might be included in marriage listings kept in books or binders by governments and churches.
Old genealogy and history books can include references to your female relatives’ maiden names. You can access a large selection of such books free through Google Books.
You might also find some by searching Google, or look for the physical paper books at your local library. Libraries sometimes can find books for you at other libraries through inter-library loan programs.
In addition, Ancestry.com maintains a very large repository of old historical and genealogy books.
Search Without a Last Name
Conducting a genealogy online search with just the woman’s first name, geographic area and year of birth works best for women with uncommon first names.
I’m guessing that if I searched for women named Petunia in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, who were born in 1846, the list would be short.
You can also try this with more common first names just to see what happens. You might get lucky and find that there was only one woman with that first name born in a particular year in the area of your ancestor’s birth.