Female Ancestors: 3 Tips for Searching Her Name

Introduction: In this article – to help celebrate Women’s History Month – Gena Philibert-Ortega gives three tips for finding your often-elusive female ancestors in newspapers and other genealogy records. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Researching female ancestors can be difficult at best. One of the obstacles is not knowing her maiden name. Articles with her maiden name can be impossible to find without that surname, but even a married surname can be an obstacle.

As you consider searching for your female ancestor, consider how you search for her name.

(1) His Name

Until the latter 20th century, it was customary to refer to married women by their husband’s name (e.g., Mrs. George Walker). Women typically were not listed by their birth first name unless they were single, widowed, or divorced. So even if you find articles with her given name and married surname, take some time to search for her by searching for his name. You can add a “Mrs.” to your search or you can just search by his name.

Here’s an example that I found by searching “Mrs. John” in the first name search box and then “McNeil” in the surname search box.

An article about Mrs. John McNeil, Argus newspaper 11 February 1899
Argus (Holbrook, Arizona), 11 February 1899, page 6

Later in 1914 another newspaper article mentioned her being sick, but she is referred to as Mrs. McNeil (with no first name).

An article about Mrs. McNeil, Snowflake Herald newspaper 9 May 1914
Snowflake Herald (Snowflake, Arizona), 9 May 1914, page 2

Because no first name is given, I would need to do further research to see if this article indeed refers to her or to one of her daughters-in-law.

This tip was actually an important reminder for me. Because my ancestor is listed in articles by her name (Mary Ann McNeil), that’s what I usually search. Searching by her husband’s name opened up a few more articles to my collection.

(2) Versions of His Name

As we consider her name, also consider versions of her husband’s name. So, for example: what were his initials? What abbreviation might substitute for his first name? Remember that in earlier times some names would have been abbreviated, including:

  • Charles = Chas
  • John = Jno
  • William= Wm
  • George = Geo

Searching for her using his name should also include his name variations. Make sure to try those to exhaust your newspaper search. In this example, Mrs. George Ricketts is listed as “Mrs. Geo. Ricketts.”

An article about Mrs. George Ricketts, New-York Evening Post newspaper 15 February 1820
New-York Evening Post (New York, New York), 15 February 1820, page 2

(3) By a Surname

If you’re researching a more unusual married surname, searching by just the surname can be beneficial since it’s hard to know how her (or her husband) may be listed in newspaper articles. While this is impossible to do if your ancestor’s surname is common (anyone have Smiths in their family tree?), if you have more unusual surnames a search on just the surname, and then narrowed down by a year range and/or a state and city, can be beneficial.

For example, one of the women I research has the married surname of Stetson. When I conduct a search just on that surname I receive over 2 million results.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search engine showing a search for "Stetson"

However, I can start narrowing that initial search by adding a year range. She used this surname from about 1900 to 1930 so I’ll go ahead and add that range and search again.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search engine showing a search for "Stetson" with a date range

That narrowed my search to 544,000 results. Better but still not great. I decided to then narrow down by a state she lived in.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search engine showing a search for "Stetson" and "Illinois"

Narrowing by the state of Illinois takes that result list down even more to 19,000. Still a lot of results but I can continue by adding or deleting keywords or narrowing down the city in Illinois.

You get the point. Sometimes we need to start big with our search and then focus it until we find what we need.

Don’t Forget Your Tools

You know how to search the GenealogyBank search engine. But remember that aside from entering names, years, and locations, there are search tools you can use to find your ancestor even when their name is misspelled in the newspaper. On GenealogyBank you can use the following tools in your search:

  • Phrase Searching (also known as Exact Phrase Searching)

When two or more words are entered without surrounding quotation marks, articles containing all of the terms will be returned – but they may appear in any order and anywhere in the document.

To search for exact phrases, put quotation marks around the phrase (e.g., “Acme Corporation”).

Keep in mind that exact phrase searching should not be the only way you search. For example, when using an exact phrase search in the First or Last Name fields you may not find relevant hits because: (1) the order in which last and first names appear often differs (e.g., “Smith, William” vs. “William Smith”); and (2) sometimes a middle initial will be included (e.g., “William E. Smith” vs. “William Smith”).

  • Proximity Operators

Proximity operators allow you to specify just how close two words must occur in a story to be included in your results. For example, if you do a search for “military service” by entering “military NEAR/5 service” that will return results that contain the words “military” and “service” within five words of each other, in any order.

  • Wild Cards

Wild cards substitute characters for letters. It’s a good choice for finding misspellings. On the GenealogyBank search engine, a ? (question mark) can substitute for one letter and an * (asterisk) can substitute for a maximum of five letters.

For example, I can use the question mark to substitute for the letter between s and n as in this example: “Peters?n.” That will get me results for “Petersen” or “Peterson.” If I want to substitute additional letters, I can try “Peter*.”

Searching Her Name

Sometimes searching her name really means searching his name. But we need to be careful about how we search that name. Searching digitized newspapers isn’t done in one search. Crafting multiple searches ensures we find all relevant articles and not just a few.

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