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Genealogy Research

Can’t Find Your Great Grandmother? 3 Places You May Not Have Looked (Yet)

Finding an ancestor’s maiden name is tough. Discover 3 often overlooked genealogy resources to identity your female ancestors.

Finding a female ancestor’s maiden name is at the top of many genealogy researchers’ minds. It’s usually at the top of mine!

Few days go by when I am not mulling over Joanna Barrett of Surry County, NC. One day…..

One of my goals is to help genealogy researchers discover uncommon resources and places to seek out more information on those female ancestors. Moving beyond the traditional genealogy records is critical to breaking down those brick walls surrounding our ancestors.

The Usual Genealogy Records and Resources For An Ancestor’s Maiden Name

Before we get to the uncommon resources for a female ancestor, let’s review the basics for finding that great-great grandmother’s maiden name.

The Birth Certificate / Birth Record

If birth certificates were being issued at the time of your ancestor’s birth, this is one of the fist places to look. Full names and the parents’ names (of course!) are mentioned.

Birth certificate for Cecile White - 1917 Surry County,NC
1917 Birth Certificate

Alternatively, a Family Bible is also an excellent resource.

[Having trouble finding the Family Bible? Read Can’t Find the Family Bible? 10 Places You May Not Have Looked.]

The Marriage Record

The marriage of a couple was a cause of celebration AND a cause for paperwork. For genealogy researchers, that is always a good thing.

Marriage records evolved over the years depending on the time period and the location. It is imperative you know what type of marriage record was generated by marrying couples for the point in time you are researching.

Were marriage bonds being used? Marriage Licenses? Marriage Registers?

Marriage Certificate for Howard-Maddox
1914 Marriage Certificate, Lee County, NC

Take a bit of time upfront and research the marriage process for your ancestor before searching the records.

The Death Certificate / Death Record

Death records created around the passing of an ancestor vary in type and in information provided. Like the birth certificate, the death certificate is the first record to check (if they were being issued).

Typically, the deceased’s parents are named on the certificate, and that does include the mother’s maiden name. Unfortunately, sometimes the informant for the death certificate may not have known the mother and/or father of the deceased and these areas are left blank.

NC Death certificate for Mattie Maddox Howard
1927 North Carolina Death Certificate

The obituary is another death “record” that can state a woman’s maiden name. It is certainly not always listed, but should be checked.

3 Places You May Have Overlooked in Searching For Your Ancestor’s Maiden Name

Once the usual sources for a female ancestor’s maiden name have been exhausted, genealogy researchers must start thinking “out of the box”, and consider what other documentation and records could possibly mention her maiden name.

We are going to take a look at 3 uncommon records many genealogy researchers often overlook.

1. A Sibling’s Record

Did your female ancestor have brothers or sisters? If you are not sure, research her for potential siblings. Knowing an ancestor’s siblings is an important clue when tracing female ancestors.

For example, if birth or death record for your female ancestor (or male ancestor!) cannot be found, and you can document a sibling(s), research the sibling for the parents names.

Black and white photo of 2 men with side parted hair, in suits. One with bow tie the other with regular tie.

2. Faith Records AND Periodicals

Genealogy researchers often use church records for finding birth, marriage and death records. If you have not explored church records for your ancestor, this is the first step.

However, do not stop at just the sacramental records. Many churches at the local and regional level had newsletters and religious newspapers. The Biblical Recorder printed in it earliest form in 1833 serving North Carolina Baptists is one such example.

Obituaries written in religious periodicals can often provide the woman’s maiden name. If not listed, often clues to other family members are provided. (See A Sibling’s Record above.)

3. The Gravestone

An ancestor’s gravestone may seem like a common place to look to some for that maiden name, but for others, maybe not.

The important thing to remember as you seek out where your female ancestor was buried is to view the actual gravestone.

With so many online databases such as FindAGrave, BillionGraves and, genealogy researchers can find a listing and/or a transcription of an ancestor’s gravestone. Many of the listings do not have the image alongside the gravestone information.

Charleston, SC gravestone for Mary Hayne, daughter of Wm Hayne.
Mary Hayne, daughter of Wm Hayne

We know as researchers when possible to seek out an original record, and it is the same with gravestones. If you know the burial place for your ancestor, you must do all you can to view that actual gravestone. If you can, go see it in person, but if not, seek out assistance from local genealogy researchers or the cemetery staff to get a photograph of it.

Be sure to take or ask for a photograph of all sides of the gravestone. You’d be surprised at what you find on the back of someone’s tombstone.

Parting the weeds and being careful of fire ants, I discovered a Great-great-great grandmother on the back of her husband’s gravestone!

How to Find More Overlooked Genealogy Resources for Women

Special collections at state and local archives, museums and libraries are some of the most overlooked resources by genealogy researchers. Researchers can be unsure what the collections contain and how to even find/use their unique finding aid.

ArchiveGrid to the rescue! ArchiveGrid is a bit like a large online “card catalog” for special collections around the world. It contains entries for 7+ million records and covers 1400+ repositories.

Homepage for Archivegrid showing map with blue location marks

Best part? It’s free!

What’s so special about special collections? A repository’s special collection can contain things such as personal diaries, photographs, copies of family Bibles, and letters. These are the types of records that document an ancestor’s personal life. A letter written to a father or mother makes the connection between generations.

Researching special collections takes time, but is well worth the effort. If you are just getting started with ArchiveGrid, learn more in the post Use ArchiveGrid To Find Old Documents & Family Records.

Now It’s Your Turn!

Ready to renew the search for your female ancestor’s maiden name?

Exhaust those usual genealogy records and then move onto those lesser used records.

You can do this!

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  • Mary D Morgan

    This summer I received help with photos of my g-g grandfather’s gravestone in Michigan. I noticed at the bottom it looked like writing, so I contacted the person. She went back and cleaned the stone, and there WAS a beautiful inscription on the bottom! So study the photos you receive carefully! The lady that did this for me is now a new friend!!!

  • Suzanne McClendon

    Thanks for this blog post. It addresses a dilemma that I’ve had for many years now – my matrilineal 2nd great-grandmother. I have been searching for years for the identity of her parents. The surname is the sore spot, for starters. Here is what I’m up against.

    Her given and married names are Maggie Williams. I know that Maggie is a nickname for Margaret. However, I do not know that she was a Margaret and not just “Maggie”. Her granddaughter, my maternal grandma was officially “Maggie”, not Margaret, so who knows.

    I haven’t pinned down 2nd gm’s maiden name or definite birth place, so haven’t found a birth certificate. The only clue that I have to her maiden name is the name of her unmarried sister in the 1900 and 1910 census. Her sister is listed in one census as Martha Robinson and in the other as Mattie Robinson. I know that Mattie is a nickname for Martha, so no problem there. Her sister is listed as unmarried, so that *should* mean that Robinson is Maggie’s maiden name, too. BUT, Robinson is often used interchangeably with Robertson, Roberson, Robison, and Robeson in the areas that I am dealing with.

    And, speaking of locations…my great-grandpa (her son-in-law) was the informant on her death certificate. He recorded Gaston, Alabama (Sumter County) as her birth place. In the previously mentioned censuses, her birth place in listed as Alabama in one and South Carolina in the other. He also put two big fat “Don’t Know” in the fields for her parents’ names. That part makes sense as she was allegedly adopted. So, at this point, I do not know if Robinson (or variant) is her actual birth maiden name or her adoptive surname.

    I have found no marriage record of her marriage to my 2nd great-grandfather. He was from a prominent family in the area where their children were born, so you’d think there’s be at least a snippet in the local paper. I have found nothing so far.

    Her tombstone says Maggie Williams and then her full birth and death date, nothing else. That stone is in a church graveyard, a church that I cannot seem to get contact information for. The genealogical society in that SC county has been non-responsive. The Alabama genealogical society at least responded(and quickly!) to confirm that the town named as her birthplace on her death certificate did actually exist.

    She bore 6 children. 4 were living in the 1900 census and 3 in the 1900 census. I have absolutely no information on the two that died before 1900 census. The one missing from 1910 is my great-grandmother’s twin. I have the obits for my great-grandma and her two other sisters that made it to adulthood. All three have different maiden names for their mother in their obituaries. My great-grandma’s says “Roberson”. Aunt Mattie’s says Robertson. Aunt Sallie’s says “Frazier”, which I wonder where on earth that came from! It is not a variant of Robinson in any way.

    I have not found an obituary for Maggie (Robinson) Williams. Other than her listing in the census, I have found nothing on her sister Mattie Robinson either, not that I could determine was actually her. Maggie Robinson and Mattie Robinson are very difficult names to search, just as bad as John Smith!

    Several of my matches have her in their trees with parents, but those parents belong to another Maggie and Martha. Their Maggie married a Mr. Weeks. My Maggie never remarried after Grandpa Williams died in 1900.

    I took the FTDNA full mtDNA test and, yay me, I have a rare matrilineal haplogroup and only have one 0 genetic distance match, an English man with a brick wall at his maternal grandma. None of my autosomal DNA matches on the sites where I can see haplogroup have the same haplogroup as I do (aside from my sister, mother, and children, of course). That haplogroup is U6b2. I have become part of a new haplogroup called U6b2a.

    The 1890 census could have answered several of these questions. I know she and her husband had to have married after the 1880 census because I found him and his mother in the household of his older half-brother and he was 15 years old and single. My great-grandma and her twin were born in 1889 or 1891 (different in both 1900 and 1910 census). The 1890 census could answer that. It might also tell me the names of those two dead children. It might also have her family living nearby. It might have a lot of things, but it no longer exists. So those “mights” are pointless.

    I had a more experienced genealogy couple from another well-known website/YouTube channel try to help me figure it out in regards to my DNA matches, but the consensus is that it is basically hopeless going by my matches.

    Short of going back to SC and digging her up to ask her, I don’t know where else to turn. She had to have had parents and I should have DNA from her.

    Sorry for the book and any typos. I will try Archive Grid again.

    • Suzanne G McClendon

      Thank you, Donald. I have seen that, too. None of Maggie Williams known children have surnames for middle names. Aunt Sallie was Sarah Virginia. Aunt Mattie was Martha Elizabeth (or possibly Martha Louise, records are conflicting). Grandma Carrie and Aunt Emma do not appear to have had middle names. If they did, I have not found them yet. There are two unknown children. I don’t know names or genders or dates for either of them, so it is possible that one of them had her maiden name as a middle name.

      Thank you for the suggestion!

      Have a blessed Easter weekend.

  • Linda Cox

    Since you don’t know anything about her parents, perhaps the Frazier maiden name was due to a second marriage of her mother. I have a gg-grandfather who married Sarah Taylor, then Sarah Armstrong, then Sally (also can be a nickname for Sarah) somebody, and had children by all three! It took a while to sort them out and find which one was my gg-grandmother. It was Sarah Armstrong.

    • Suzanne G McClendon

      Thank you, Linda! I hadn’t considered the Frazier name potentially being a 2nd marriage for her mother(my 3rd great-grandmother).

      I bet it was a real adventure sorting out all of those Sarahs! Am I correct in thinking that Sadie is also a nickname for Sarah? I have “Sallie” and “Sally” throughout my trees, but just a few Sadies. I am very glad that you were able to get those ladies worked out and learn which was your 2nd great-grandma.

      Thank you for this suggestion. I will do a search on Emma Robinson Frazier, going with the thought of a second marriage and that perhaps my great-grandma’s twin was named Emma because it was her maternal grandmother’s name. My great-grandma Carrie (Caroline) was named after their paternal grandmother.

      Have a blessed Holy Weekend!

  • Brenda Burns

    I have a very hard time finding my grand father. He was born in Spain and his last name is Chapai but I did see one time the spelling was Chapius. I do know his mom and dad names. Is there any place I can look for a birth cert. Everything say he was white born in Iowa and that is not true. Any help would be apprichated/

  • Bettie Brubeck Utter

    I am blessed! I know the maiden names of all my great grandmothers and all of my great great grandmothers! I even knew one great grandmother! I was 22 when she died. She was a dear lady! And thanks to Ancestry I even know maiden names of some five times great grandmothers! Same with my husbands ancestors!

  • Katherine

    My situation in finding out anything about my great grandmother is unique. I have tried to find birth records and death records to no avail. The biggest problem is that she went by multiple names. I found her on a marriage certificate that had her husband and parents names on them. I have my grandfathers birth certificate with her maiden name on it. Then she had more children with a different maiden name on it. I have been told that her mother passed away when she was very young, and she lived with a family that her parents knew. This is a name that I found on one of her other children’s birth record. Then we have her divorced from my great-grandfather after something like 25 years of marriage, and she married the widower of her ex husband’s cousin. Then we have yet another name, which her 2nd husband gave upon her death, when he was trying to gain possession of her bank account. That makes 5 different names!! I have contacted the town hall in the town in which she passed away and was buried. They have no record of it. The State of New York has no record of it, but sent me my great-grandfather’s death certificate. I keep thinking about her and searching for anything and everything to find out something about her. Maybe some day I will solve the mystery!

  • Leonie Peers

    This is an interesting article and looking forward to trying out all the hints. Just wondering, what can one do if unable to find place and date of birth for an ancestor? Have his name (on his son’s death certificate & marriage certificate) and on one document he was listed as stonemason. His son was born in Germany circa 1840s.

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