Trouble researching female ancestors? Learn how to find those elusive females in your family tree with these genealogy research strategies.
Her name is Joanna Barrett.
Or is it?
Is Barrett her maiden name or a married name? If a married name, is it from a first or second marriage?
All I really know before Joanna ended up in Surry County, North Carolina, is that she was born in Ireland and had a daughter – also named Joanna – in America.
Joanna is a brick wall female ancestor.
We all have brick wall ancestors, and many of those brick walls represent female ancestors.
While you might want to throw your hands up in despair, resist the temptation! You do have options in your research for tracking down those great-great-……great-grandmothers.
How To Overcome the Difficulties of Researching Female Ancestors
Our female ancestors frequently did not create many formal records for us – their descendants – to find. Add to that the name change occurring at marriage. In the case of multiple marriages, your ancestor may have more than one name change.
No wonder we struggle to identify or keep track of a great grandmother.
When searching for our female ancestors, sometimes it’s less about finding a direct connection and more about learning how to find and put clues together to draw the correct conclusion.
Let’s start with first things first.
What do you already know about your female ancestor?
Maybe you know a lot and maybe you know just a little. Either way review what you have.
Genealogy Tip: If you have been researching a female ancestor for years, go back to the beginning of your research. Pretend you know nothing about her and review your earlier notes. Years of researching may yield a new perspective on previous research.
Do Not Overlook the Obvious When Researching Female Ancestors
Do not assume a record will not have information on your female ancestor without looking. I’ve seen too many serendipitous finds happen in genealogy research from checking a “long shot record” to ignore any potential record source.
This includes at home sources of genealogical information and information found in collateral lines, too. Often in our excitement to get started on a new research project, genealogy researchers have a tendency to jump right into the online databases and just start searching.
We could be missing information within in the family.
Consider this: Most people can remember 2-3 generations back. If that is your grandparents, you potentially have access to 150 years of family history (!) . I put that to the test in my own family and yes, oral history and family stories went back into the 1860’s!
If you are the older generation in your family, reach out to the collateral lines of a family. I cannot stress the importance of this to your research. Yes, it takes time and involves stepping outside of your comfort zone (at least, my comfort zone). The risk of missing out on important genealogical information is too great to skip this step.
[Whew! I’ll get down off of my soapbox now. ]
Another obvious source of information researchers miss is the family Bible. Yes, the family Bible can be the only source of information on some females in the family. Researchers often tell me no family Bible exists on their side of the family. Consider that a collateral line might have a family Bible. Additionally, check state archives and university libraries digital collections for family Bible collections. Don’t forget to check back for updates, too.
Shift Your Focus Away From Your Female Ancestor
Researching those female ancestors often involves shifting your focus. Our female ancestors did not create many of their own records, but they did appear in the records of their husbands and father.
Thoroughly research any male who played a significant role in your female ancestor’s life.
This could be a husband, a father, a brother, a son and even a grandfather.
Was your female ancestor a widow? Does she appear in her husband’s estate records? Who else appears in that estate record and what is their relationship to the deceased?
Potentially, you will find in-laws as some of the husband’s associates.
Did your ancestor’s husband receive a military pension? Search for that pension application. You can find clues to a man’s wife in his military pension application.
Shift Your Focus To Her Children
Just as you shift focus of your research away from the woman to the men surrounding her, try shifting the focus of your research to the children.
A variety of resources her children create will give you clues to your ancestor’s identity.
If you know or suspect you know a woman’s child, check for the child’s birth record. A child’s birth record will typically state the mother’s maiden name. Birth records include the traditional birth certificates (of more “modern” times) or birth/baptism records recorded in the church or parish records. Birth announcements found in newspapers will yield at least a woman’s first name
A birth record, regardless of how complete the mother’s information is, will place the woman in a specific place at a specific time. This time and location can be used as a guide to search for other records on the woman and the father.
Here is an example of a Catholic baptism record found in Colorado, Roman Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs Sacramental Records, 1800-1967. We find the child listed and then the parents., in this case, the mother’s maiden name is provided.
Research Her Role in the Community
Women were often the communicators in a family.
They wrote diaries and journals.
They were the letter writers and creators of community cookbooks.
They were the volunteers.While the women may not have created a lot of records themselves, they were actively taking part in their community and leaving traces of themselves is less obvious records.
A variety of records exist for researching female ancestors within their communities.
Consider seeking out:
- Community Cookbooks – Read more about how to use these unique genealogy sources!
- Church Records & Church Directories
- Court Records
- Newspapers – Check the society and local community sections.
- Religious Periodicals
- Letters & Journals
Finding potentially useful letters and diaries can be a bit tricky. Check the personal collections records at local and state archives as well as local historical societies and museums. ArchiveGrid is another source or locating personal collections at repositories across the US. Learn more about how to use ArchiveGrid in your genealogy research HERE.