4 Mistakes Genealogists Make Researching Female Ancestors

Introduction: In this article – in honor of March being Women’s History Month – Gena Philibert-Ortega provides four search tips in case you’re inspired this month to research your female ancestors. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Researching female ancestors can be a challenge. What can make it extra hard is when we make research mistakes. What mistakes stop you from finding your female ancestors? Here are four you’ll want to stop doing today.

Illustration: picture of a woman

1) Making Assumptions

The number one issue I see with researchers as they attempt to find their female ancestors is the assumptions they make, such as these:

  • “women didn’t work then”
  • “no one got divorced back then”
  • “all women married”

Don’t make assumptions about what women use to do or what records exist back in time. Instead, make sure to learn what records exist for your ancestor’s location and era. If you’re not sure what might exist beyond a census, vital records, or newspaper articles, consult the FamilySearch Research Wiki. Search the Wiki for the country or state you are researching.

The Wiki provides pages on Record Types. Although this won’t be an exhaustive list of everything that is available for a place, it will help. You can then search the FamilySearch Catalog for the location you are researching to learn more, and to see what is available on the FamilySearch website and at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

 2) Not Exhausting Resources

Which websites do you search? If your answer is only one or two websites, that’s not enough. No one website has everything, and not everything is (or ever will be) online. You need to make sure that you are using a combination of online resources, libraries, and archives.

If you’re not using libraries and archives, start today. Libraries can provide you everything from books on local history and access to subscription websites to local history files found in your ancestor’s hometown public library. Academic libraries include a plethora of subscription websites and access to materials on history, local history, and topics relating to genealogy. One online catalog for libraries is WorldCat.

Archives hold materials that are rich in genealogical detail, such as diaries, correspondence, records, and more. Different types of archives collect specific materials, so researching a combination of archives may be in order. For example, search the National Archives and the county archive where your ancestor lived. One online catalog for many archives (but not all) is ArchiveGrid.

3) Using Only One Name to Search

Sure, your ancestor’s name was Sarah Ann Smith – but is that the only way you should search for her? Definitely not. You need to factor in your search:

  • her birth name
  • her married name (Mrs. [Husband’s first] and [last name])
  • nicknames (did you know that Sally was a nickname for Sarah?)
  • variations (initials only, for example)
  • misspellings or alternative spellings (Sarah or Sara, for example)

Genealogy websites give you options to use when you search. For example, they may provide the option to search by Soundex. They may allow Boolean Operators, and wildcards. GenealogyBank allows you to use both Boolean operators and wildcards (for more information see our FAQ).

So, the point is: don’t settle on one search using only one name. Try several searches utilizing combinations of her name. I suggest keeping a list of all the possible combinations of her name so that you can refer to it as you search.

4) Searching Not Browsing

I know you know how to search online. You most likely do it every day. You go to your favorite website and enter an ancestral name, date, and place. But you should stop just searching for your ancestor.

What does it mean to browse instead of search? It means that you skip the search engine and go straight to that newspaper or database and you look through it, page-by-page or by a specific year. Why would you do this? After all, that could take a lot of time.

Do you ever go to the library knowing what you want to check out, and when you go to pull that book off the shelf you notice that the “perfect” book is on the next shelf? Browsing a website is sort of like that. Sometimes we get so focused on what we think we want that we either can’t find it or we lose sight that there could be other items we need. If you browse a database you may find names of other family members or your ancestor’s FAN club (Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors). You may find that your ancestor is listed with a name variation or misspelling you didn’t expect. You may learn more about that record set which will help you as you search.

What about browsing newspapers? One of the benefits of browsing some of your ancestor’s hometown newspapers is that it will provide you with ideas for what articles appear, and what types of articles mention women. Knowing what to expect can help your overall research.

What Mistakes Are You Making?

Don’t be embarrassed if you’re making some of these mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes with their genealogy, not just family historians new to research. What’s important is to continue to grow as a researcher and search in a way that you can find those female ancestors. Yes, there will always be those ancestors that left behind few records. But there are many who are on records – it just takes good research skills to find them.

10 thoughts on “4 Mistakes Genealogists Make Researching Female Ancestors

  1. How do you find the exact correct spelling of a last name?
    I have seen so many different spellings of my great grandmother’s maiden name.

    1. Linda, spelling was not always “exact” in earlier times. If you have her birth record, I’d probably go with that and then note all of the variations. The variations are important because as you search you need to be flexible or you will miss important records. Good luck!

  2. Thanks for the tips. Been looking for great grandparents forever. I believe I found her grave and he’s not there. Census shows grandmother raised by a Ferdinand and Catherine. Her obit says Joseph and Catherine. Can’t find any obits for either of the four. So I need all the help I can get…

    1. Tina I had a hard time locating my great great Aunt and finally went to the cemetery where her husband was buried and found she was buried next to him but had no stone and haven’t found an obit to say when and where she died. Sometimes you need to actually get out of the computer search and d old fashion [ guilty as charged hometown newspapers are stored at local college and haven’t gone yet]. Keep looking .

      1. Very true William. I have a woman I research and she is buried in her parents’ cemetery plot but she does not have a gravestone. I had to contact the cemetery and have them look through the records. It’s not enough just to not find a gravestone, you need to also check cemetery records. Thanks for your comment, William!

    2. Tina, I completely understand. Research doesn’t always go the way we think it should. Not everyone had an obituary, unfortunately. Make sure to identify all the records for the time and location where your great-grandparents lived, beyond the familiar records such as census and vital records. You can identify additional records by searching the FamilySearch Catalog for the place they lived in. Good luck with your research!

  3. What a great article on searching for females. I can say I have done some of them all, but I am not consistent enough, doing one technique most of the time and occasionally doing others. When I have browsed, I have made incredible finds! For example, I did not know my ggfather had a sister at all, much less that she died in the USA. Browsing the Savannah Morning News, I found her in an article about her divorce, in which her brother (ggfather) was mentioned. Then I went searching for the marriage license and located it. So much fun!

    1. Wonderful example Karen! Thanks for sharing that. It is through searching male family members that we can find women in our family tree.

      Thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to comment.

  4. Awesome article! I have been struggling with finding some female ancestors. The females I struggle to find are from Sweden. By browsing, I happened across valuable documents that my ggrandmother’s sibling immigrated to America after emigrating from Canada. I found those records by happenstance when browsing records of an area I knew my grandmother lived for a time when my dad was young.
    After reading your article, I now begin to wonder if my ggrandmother didn’t actually come to visit in America at some time according to immigration records… sadly, I cannot find emigration records to confirm her return, but have records confirming her death in Sweden. Maybe one day I will find the missing puzzle piece to her story.
    It’s definitely a treasure if you can find distant relatives in country, or in the local area, that can also help confirm; or even someone local that could search for you if you are unable to travel.
    Thanks again for the tips and responses to comments. Every little bit helps… I’m excited for what will be found next!

  5. Amy, thanks for sharing about your female ancestor. I agree with you, every little bit does help. Genealogy is a process and more discoveries are waiting to happen as new records become available. Good luck with your research –Gena

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