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Invisible Female Ancestors

(from Kimberly Powell’s About Genealogy Weekly Column on March 3, 2015) 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.

“Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”
— Abigail Adams, March 1776

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.

Women in Marriage Records
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 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.

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.

Women in Cemetery Records
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.

Women in Census Records
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.

Women in Land Records
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.

Women in Naming Patterns
Naming patterns may provide important clues in family history research. People of all countries tend to name children after other family members, often using an unwritten, but traditional formula. In Ireland, as in many other countries, the first-born son was generally named after the paternal grandfather, and the first daughter after the maternal grandmother. This was an especially common practice during the 19th century and earlier. Surnames in some Scandinavian countries are indicative of a child’s parentage – the Swedish surname Johannson, for example, indicates the “son of Johann.” Surname endings can even indicate the country of origin. The -son ending mentioned above is typically Swedish, while -sen (Jensen) is more likely to be Danish or Norwegian.

Middle names can also provide wonderful clues to ancestry. Children have often been given the mother’s maiden name as a middle name to identify their ancestral ties. Or they may have been named after an uncle, aunt, or other more distant relative. French families frequently gave the father’s name to a girl by changing one or two letters to a feminine form. You’ll often find such family-derived names handed down from generation to generation.

The next time your genealogy research comes to a standstill, try looking at family names for patterns – the answer may have been right under your nose all along.

Naming Patterns in Different Countries and Cultures
An understanding of naming patterns can be very helpful in tracing ones ancestry, as families in many cultures followed the custom of naming their children in a specific manner. Learn more about common naming practices, for both surnames and given names, in various countries and cultures around the world.

Women in Other Records
The primary records which mention women, especially prior to the 20th century, include vital records, census records, cemetery records and land records. Yet, these records may not always provide the clue to a woman’s maiden name that we need to find her parents and trace her line back in our family tree. When you’ve exhausted those possibilities without success, however, these often overlooked records may also provide a clue.

Women in Church Records
You can usually find a woman’s maiden name on church marriage records. Baptism and christening records also often contain the maiden name of a child’s mother. Check for godparents, they are often related to the child. Women also participated in many church activities, so membership records may also be of benefit.

Women in Wills
Wills and probate records will usually include the names of the children or, in the cases where a parent outlives his child, the grandchildren. Surnames of female children along with their husband’s names are often listed. Married women prior to the late nineteenth century did not leave wills, as all of their possessions automatically went to their husband.

Women in Military Records
Women have served in the military throughout history. Many of them participated disguised as men in the U.S. Revolution and the Civil War. You are more likely, however, to find your female ancestor mentioned in the pension record created by her husband, or as the mother or widow of a deceased veteran.

Women in Newspapers
Early newspapers often contained notices of births, marriages, divorces, deaths and other good genealogical information. County or local newspapers commonly list more biographical data than do newspapers in large cities.

Routinely using old newspapers in your genealogy research will not only provide possible clues to your ancestors, but also the rare opportunity to understand the times and community in which your ancestors lived. Dig into newspapers today and you won’t be disappointed!

Kimberly Powell is a professional genealogist, genealogy blogger and proud mother of three children. She is a course coordinator and instructor at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, and an instructor at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. She is also the proud winner of the Silver Tray for Excellence in Genealogical Publishing, awarded by the Utah Genealogical Society in January 2013 for her work on About.com.

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