8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate March being National Women’s History Month, Mary provides practical tips to help you search for your female ancestors.

You know that age-old expression, What’s in a name? Well, it means absolutely nothing if you can’t find your female ancestor in any of the records—much less her maiden name.

Since the majority of “dead end” ancestor quests are for women, I’d like to share some overlooked avenues for breaking through those genealogy research brick walls, in honor of Women’s History Month.

photo of the B. F. Clark family

Library of Congress Photo: “Family of B. F. Clark, 219 N. 4th Street” www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004002862/PP/resource/

(Note: all of the newspaper articles used to illustrate this Blog post come from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.)

Tip #1: Know All of Your Ancestor’s Identities

This tip suggests that when searching the women in your family tree, you need to search for every name she ever went by, whether it be a formal first name (given name) or an informal nickname.

Most women, including myself, have multiple identities, depending upon the context.

Someone might have a pet name within the family, a formal name on a birth record, and might also gain a new name in a religious setting. And a woman might also go by one spelling as a child, and then choose to spell her name differently as an adult.

Nickname References and Examples

  • Abigail: Abbie, Abby, Gail, Nabby
  • Adeline: Addie, Aline, Dell, Della
  • Clementine: Clem, Tina
  • Henrietta: Etta, Henry, Etty
  • Margaret: Daisy, Greta, Madge, Maggie, Mamie, Marge, Margery, Peggy
  • Roberta: Berta, Bertie, Bobbie, Bobby, Robbie, Robby
article about Daisy Walker, Freeman newspaper article 20 March 1909

Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana), 20 March 1909, page 4

Tip #2: Search All of Your Ancestor’s Titles

Titles aren’t always formal. They can be applied according to the role one takes in the community, and vary from situation to situation. Take, for example, Mary Jane Smith, a popular neighborhood mom in Atlanta. It’s possible some genealogical records only call her Mama Smith, whereas others might name her as Mary Jane Smith.

article about Mary Jane Smith, Marietta Journal newspaper article 4 June 1985

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 4 June 1985, page 6

Ancestor Title examples:

  • Aunt, Aunty, Sis, Mama, Mother, Grandma, Grannie, Nana
  • Goodwife or Goody Jones (a Puritan title)
  • Miss America
  • Mrs. Peabody, Mrs. Juan Moreno
  • Nurse Miller
  • Widow Channing
article about the Puritans' use of the terms "goodman" and "goodwife," Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 4 July 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 4 July 1937, page 5

Tip #3: Search for Pseudonyms

If a woman wished to compete in a man’s world, she typically used a pseudonym.

Many people have heard of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote the beloved novel Little Women. However, few know that Louisa used the pseudonym A. M. Barnard to publish a series of “potboilers” that were thrilling Gothic stories.

book review of Louisa May Alcott's book "Plots and Counter-Plots," Dallas Morning News newspaper article 26 September 1976

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 26 September 1976, page 5aaa

Tip #4: Search by Her Initials

Many assume that men are more prone to be recorded by their initials, but it is common for women also, depending upon the circumstance.

Competing in a Man’s World

Female authors and artists very often use initials to compete in a man’s world.

Mary Jane (Olmstead) Stanton was a suffragette and author who appears in records under the name M. O. Stanton. In this 1890 newspaper article, written when Stanton was involved as a founding member of the Woman’s Press Association of the Pacific Coast, some women were referred to by their initials (Mrs. E. T. Y. Parkhurst), others by their own names (Mrs. Sarah B. Cooper), and one by her husband’s name (Mrs. Sam Davis).

Woman's Press Association, San Diego Union newspaper article 9 October 1890

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 9 October 1890, page 2

Official Government Records

Official government records, such as patents, are sometimes recorded by the inventor’s initials—so if you search only by the obvious names, you’ll miss them.

  • The invention of the modern form of the rolling pin was patented by C. Deiner (Catherine Deiner) 17 March 1891 under U.S. Patent 448,476.

Tip #5: Incorporate Cultural Considerations in Searches

As a country of immigrants, we shouldn’t be surprised that name spellings vary from country to country, or that a bilingual family might interchange names according to the cultural setting. A woman might be called by her Old World name in the family setting, and recorded in other ancestry records by the more common American spelling.

For example, an ancestor named Mary might also be known as: Maria if your family came from Spain; from the Netherlands, as Marja or Maaike; and if your female progenitor was Welsh, she might also be recorded in records as Mair.

article about Marja Rufa, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 11 February 1909

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 11 February 1909, page 3

Research Considerations

  • It can take several generations before Old World names are Americanized.
  • American and foreign versions were often interchanged, depending upon the cultural setting.
  • Names are typically recorded differently in English-speaking newspapers than in foreign-language editions.

Tip #7: Search Multiple Sources for Marriage Records

There are more ways to prove a marriage than almost any other event—but many sources for marriage evidence are overlooked. Some will not be found on the Web, so think creatively if you haven’t been able to locate a woman’s maiden name or marriage record.

Marriage Record Research Suggestions:

  • Bibles
  • Biographies
  • Cemetery Records
  • Church Books and Minister’s Records
  • Church Newsletters
  • Civil Registrations (courthouses)
  • Consent Affidavits
  • Courthouse Records
  • Death Certificates
  • Diaries
  • Divorce Decrees
  • Engagement Notices
  • Frakturs (form of artwork common with the Pennsylvania Dutch; see “Frakturs & Family Bibles Can Provide Proof of Marriage”)
  • Immigration Records
  • Journals
  • Land Records
  • Marriage Banns—or Publishing of the Banns (see “Understanding Terms Found in Historical Newspapers”)
  • Marriage Bonds
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Marriage Licenses
  • Marriage Permits
  • Naturalization Papers
  • Obituaries of Family Members
  • Orphan Court Records
  • Pension Files (widows)
  • Probate Records
  • Town Histories
  • Town Records (prior to civil registration)
  • Wedding Showers
  • Wills
article about marriage permits, Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper article 16 July 1878

Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio), 16 July 1878, page 3

Tip #8: Enter “Maiden Name” as a Search Engine Keyword

When I discovered this last genealogy research tip, it was a real “Aha” moment!

If you are looking for a maiden name, use “maiden name” or “maiden name was” as keywords in your search. Notice how many results were returned when I tried it in the GenealogyBank search box:

  • “maiden name”: over 125,000 results
  • “maiden name was”: almost 35,000 results

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for keywords "maiden name was"

Now incorporate those keywords with a name search, and see what you find! When I entered “Sarah Furman” “maiden name,” this record identifying her as a Strickland appeared—a fantastic research find listing her 260 offspring!

obituary for Sarah Furman, Boston Post-Boy newspaper article 22 February 1742

Boston Post-Boy (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 February 1742, page 3

Yes, finding all the genealogy records for your female ancestors can be tough, but employing these eight research tips—plus a little patience—might turn up some solid results for you in your family history searches.

Please share with us in the comments section any successes you’ve had from using these tips, and any additional methods you’ve used to find the females in your family tree.

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Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

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11 thoughts on “8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry

  1. I am working on my lineage for seven generations, all through the females of the line. It gets especially hard in the early 1800s.

    • Sheila,

      Very exciting that you have successfully researched seven generations of your matrilineal ancestry. Not many researchers have achieved the same!

      Mary

  2. This was a wonderful post! Thank you for the fine examples, some of which I would never have thought of. I am certainly saving this one.

    • Peggy,

      Thank you for the kind words. Let me know if the tips help you break through any brick walls!

      Mary

  3. Hi very interesting and helpful article.
    Im not from the US and dont live there. Could somebody explain me if in a certain time women got her maiden names in a differente way than men?
    I have found some families where the boys had a surname and the sisters a different one or even when they were just girls. For example the case of writer Louisa May Alcott:
    Alcott was born on November 29, 1832,[2] in Germantown,[2] which is now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on her father’s 33rd birthday. She was the daughter of transcendentalist and educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May and the second of four daughters: Anna Bronson Alcott was the eldest; Elizabeth Sewall Alcott and Abigail May Alcott were the two youngest.
    Why Louisa and Abigail had first the “May” name from their mother and then the Alcott surname as second?
    Thanks in advance for an answer.

  4. Henning,

    Thanks for this question!

    How and why families chose to assign middle names was a personal decision. Some children did not receive them, and others were given them for a variety of cultural and religious reasons.

    In this example from the Alcott family, Bronson, Sewall and May were family surnames (last names) from earlier generations, but are not considered to be surnames for the children.

    The Alcott family chose to use what is called a naming convention for middle names. Most commonly these were used for first names, but their tradition was to use the maiden names of female predecessors for the middle names of the four sisters.

    Abigail and Louisa Alcott received their mother’s maiden name of May.
    Anna Alcott received her paternal grandmother’s middle name of Bronson.
    Elizabeth Alcott received her maternal grandmother’s maiden name of Sewall.

    Their father, Amos Bronson Alcott, received his mother’s maiden name of Bronson.
    His father, Joseph Chatfield Alcott, received his mother’s maiden name of Chatfield.

    Mary

    • Hi and thanks for the explanation.
      So this pattern of using the mothers surname or earlier generations family surnames as a second name is very american right? Or was it also present in the U.K. culture and traditions?
      I knew this pattern in jewish and middle eastern families, where they dont want to loose the memory of an important family name or just to honour that side of the family.
      Also in old spanish and portuguese registers sometimes you can find very rare examples of this practice. Maybe because in spanish is not typical to find surnames that can be also use as names.
      thanks
      Henning

      • Henning,

        Interesting about the spanish registers and other cultural practices. Thanks for sharing.

        In the U.S., the naming convention of using surnames for middle names is common, but varies from family to family. We also see double first names, as in Mary Ann or Thelma Lu.

        Mary

  5. I have had some success researching the death certificates of the siblings of my ancestors. The names of the parents & their birthplaces are listed & the person reporting the death can also be a clue. Elderly parents sometimes lived with their children or other family members. Family usually lived close. Looking through the census at the neighbors can bring more family to light. Good luck with your research. I have Harrell (Herrell) in my lineage. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Herrell. I’m still researching that branch. I have found many Herrells from the Portland, Tennessee area. My 2nd great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Aldridge) Herrell went by the name Mollie. Another nickname to try is Polly (Molly).
    Blessings,
    Debbie

    • Debbie,

      Thank you for sharing the tips about sibling records (esp. death certificates), exploring the relationships of neighbors and the Polly/Mollie nickname of your second great grandmother. All are great ideas.

      And what fun that we share a Harrell/Herrell surname connection!

      Blessings to you too.

      Mary

  6. I suggest that you include enslaved women in the Research Considerations and Marriage Record Research Suggestions. They should be included in Research Considerations: They are difficult to find because slaves weren’t allowed to marry, so most African-Americans got married after the Civil War. However, researchers should check local customs because some slaves did marry (my great-great grandparents were married by a free black minister in KY in 1854 but I don’t believe it was recognized by the state).

    Free African Americans were allowed to marry the same way others did.

    You could include Cohabitation Registers and Freedmen’s Bureau Records under the Marriage Record Research Suggestions. They were created at the county level in Southern states after the war so former slaves could legitimize relationships formed during slavery. Also, Freedmen’s Bureau agents performed marriages for U.S Colored Troop soldiers.

    The only way I confirmed the maiden name of my great-great-great grandmother, who was born in the 1830s and died in 1923, was to find her death certificate. Unfortunately that research tactic can only be used for a limited number of women.

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