Never fear: We’ve laid out a treasure map of 10 places to look for keys to your female ancestor’s past. Recovering a lady’s maiden name requires a little exploration, so let’s begin with the most easily accessible records first.
I once solved the mystery of a great-grandparent when my aunt produced her baby book, which had a detailed four-generation family tree filled out in my grandmother’s unmistakable handwriting. If you’re lucky enough to possess an ancestor’s diary or date book, scour it for family information—and transcribe it, while you’re at it.
Some other archaic terms you may encounter are:
- consort: denotes the person’s still-living spouse
- relict: denotes the person was a widow(er)
- née: French for born, referring to the maiden name of a married woman, such as “Jane Doe née Buck”
Court and military records
- Anniversary celebrations: The local newspaper might’ve acknowledged a 25th, 50th or other anniversary. Sometimes you’ll find a brief history of the couple, with names of their children and grandchildren, or a description of the original ceremony complete with location and officiant.
- County fair results: Your ancestor might’ve been known for her prize quilts, strawberry preserves or champion bread-and-butter pickles. Girls winning ribbons were often listed as the “daughter of” the proud parents. If she lived in the same community for many years, you may be able to work backwards to find her maiden name.
- Five-generation photos: Finding one of these is like winning the genealogy sweepstakes. (My grandmother kept scrapbooks of five-generation photos of people she knew, and was thrilled when she finally had one of her own in the paper to brag about.) You might get lucky and find one with your ancestor’s family that links generations and names names.
Depending on the denomination, records from baptisms or christenings can include not only the child’s given name and parents’ names (including the mother’s maiden name), but also the child’s sponsors or godparents (often, family members). Contact churches in your ancestor’s hometown or local genealogy societies for help locating these records.
If none of these sources turn up the maiden name you seek, it’s time to start the voyage again, this time looking for the same records of any known siblings. You may get lucky and find your missing maiden’s parents living with the other children. Even if your female ancestor signed her name with an X, or was known only as the Mrs. to her Mr., when you set your course on these bearings, you’ll proceed full speed ahead.
- Family Tree Essentials CD
- FamilySearch Essentials webinar recording
- Brick Wall Strategies webinar recording
If you know the maiden name and are looking for a woman’s married name, try these strategies:
1. Search legal documents, wills and probate records for her parents. Daughters receiving a bequest are sometimes listed under their married name.
2. Seek out obituaries for any siblings—most will include brothers and sisters among those “survived by.”
3. Check the census records for all of the family’s nearby neighbors—look for a female with the appropriate first name, age and birthplace. Also check census records for her twilight years—she may have been living with a sibling or parent as a widow or divorcee.
4. Ask, ask and ask. Even near and dear family members remember things differently—ask everyone what and who they can recall.
Like a puzzle, it took the marriage record, a half-sibling’s obituary, and a census record to piece together this one small part of Mattie Treser Kester’s life.