9 Best Records for Finding Female Ancestors

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium


Tease out research leads on female ancestors and find their maiden names with the following record-by-record research advice. You can find more research advice in our guide to finding female ancestors and in A Genealogists’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway Books).

Cemetery records
Court records
Death records
Land records
Marriage records

A tombstone may bear a woman’s maiden or married name, just her first initial, or her husband’s name (“wife of John Doe). Record information from nearby plots-they may belong to her relatives. Contact the caretaker or cemetery office for the burial record.

Search every census during a woman’s lifetime. Look for relatives, as young couples sometimes lived with parents and an older woman may be living with a child. Pre-1850 censuses recorded only heads of household, usually men. Search for the husband or father and inspect the household members’ tick marks for one who might be your female ancestor. (See the May 2007 Family Tree Magazine for census search secrets.)

You can request court records from your ancestor’ county courthouse or search for microfilm in the Family History Library’s (FHL) online catalog. Rent films through a branch Court
During many time periods, a woman couldn’t leave a will unless her husband gave permission. But many unmarried, divorced and widowed women left wills. A woman also may be named in the will of her father, husband or son. For men who died without a will, research court records for letters of administration distributing property. Divorces and petitions for them were more common than you might think; see the July 2007 Family Tree Magazine to learn more.

Death certificates often contain women’s maiden names, but the details are only as reliable as the informant, so be prepared for inaccuracies. Request the children’s death certificates, too-one may give a maiden name if another doesn’t. You can get death records from the state archives, or the county or state vital-records office where your relative lived. Find coverage years and contact information in the Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists edited by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack and Erin Nevius (Family Tree Books).

Though women rarely owned land, they may be named in deeds filed at county courthouses (check the FHL catalog for microfilmed records from your ancestor’s county). “Depending on the time period and the state laws, when a man bought or sold land, the record can include the name of his wife, and it might also include her release of dower,” says Carmack. A woman’s dower is her right to a third of her husband’s real property after his death, and she had to grant him the right to sell it.

Check both grantee (buyer) and grantor (seller) records to determine when the woman or her husband first appear as owning land, and when the land was sold-typically after the death of a spouse. Get more land research advice in the August 2006 Family Tree Magazine.

Often the best sources of maiden names, marriage certificates or license applications are usually available from the same repositories that have death records. You also might find a certificate on FHL microfilm.

The FHL has some microfilmed church records, or you could try writing the church or its headquarters. See the February 2004 Family Tree Magazine for more on church records research.

Until 1922, wives were listed on their husbands’ naturalization records. After that, you can find separate records for married women (children under 16 were on their fathers’ forms). Before 1906, immigrants filed for naturalization in their municipal, county, state or federal court. For naturalizations after 1906, submit a Freedom of Information Act request to US Citizenship and Immigration Services using form G-639. But first, see if the FHL has the areas’ naturalizations on microfilm.

Women may show up in the pages with recipes, sewing hints, ladies’ club news and gossip columns. Also check obituaries and the birth and wedding announcements, as well as notices of desertions, divorces, immigrations and bankruptcies. Historical newspapers are increasingly available online through subscription services such as GenealogyBank, but you’ll probably have to do some microfilm scrolling. Check with the library where your ancestor lived and use Chronicling America to learn which newspapers covered your ancestor’s area and what repositories have them.

A woman could file for a military pension when her husband or unmarried son died of war-related injuries. Widows had to send marriage records to assure the government it wouldn’t end up paying more than one pension on the same man. The National Archives and Records Administration has pension records for soldiers from 1775 to 1916; see the Web site for ordering information.