by Steven Dugan
Tracking last names is an effective tool for genealogists, especially when trying to confirm you’re on the right track in your research. It’s safe to assume that it will be easier to trace the males in your family because the surname follows the male line. Finding maiden names of your female ancestors, however, might not be as easy the further back you go.
Before women were recognized as more than just their husband’s wives, researchers often had little or no information to go on. Since laws and traditions in many countries dictated that a woman take her husband’s last name, maiden names tended to fade into history, especially because financial and property records were all in the husband’s name. Here are five tools genealogists use to find maiden names of their female ancestors. These tips may require a little more work, but discovering that oft-hidden name is worth it!
Marriage records – Marriage records are usually very detailed. They often list not only the groom’s name, but the bride’s full maiden name, her parents’ names (including mom’s maiden name), the location of the marriage, and, of course, the date. (Hint: Direct your search for marriage records in the bride’s hometown—couples often got married where the bride grew up!)
Birth and Death certificates – Many states have a vast database of birth and death certificates, and in some cases, you can print them right off the internet. Dates, parents’ names, places of birth, causes of death, and where deaths occurred are among some of the valuable information you will find to help discover maiden names.
State laws will differ on obtaining copies of birth, marriage, and death records if they are not available online. Consult the Vital Records department of the state in which you are searching. And save yourself some money. We suggest not purchasing certified copies unless you absolutely have to; many states offer copies for genealogical purposes at a lesser cost.
Church records or family Bibles – Before we used ancestor charts and family group sheets, church records and family Bibles served as early genealogy records. Church records were used for membership, as well as keeping track of births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and deaths in the congregation. Generations of the same family would often attend the same church as well, so the family Bible often held this treasure trove of information.
Cemetery records – These records might have much of the same information as a death certificate (names, dates, causes of death, etc.), but cemetery records also provide information about other family members buried there. Many local cemeteries have digitized their records, which helps find where your ancestors are buried. Just type the name of the cemetery in your search engine and see what comes up! The website findagrave.com has a feature that one can link family members together in the database. Family historians are able to create an account to add their own information to the database as well.
Newspaper Articles – Hometown newspapers in the 1950s and early ‘60s would often report when relatives of local residents came for a visit. The four to five line blurbs would go something like this: “Mrs. Jane Smith was visited by her mother, Harriet Douglas, from Baltimore, Maryland. While here, Mrs. Douglas and her daughter will visit Disneyland, the beach, and have dinner at the Brown Derby Restaurant.” From that information, we can figure out that Jane’s maiden name is probably Douglas, her mother’s name is Harriet, and she possibly grew up in Baltimore. Long before privacy laws, Jane’s home address was often published in the story as well, allowing you to track where Jane lived at a certain point in time. Armed with this information, you are better equipped to investigate and confirm new names and places in your research.
If you’re interested in learning how to research and document your family history, consider attending It’s All Relative, a two-part genealogy workshop, scheduled for February 18 and March 4, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Homestead Museum. The first session will cover the basics of genealogy research, such as collecting and organizing facts and discovering the places you can find information both online and in person. During the second session, participants will get help with documenting their family history data, using clues to date old family photographs, and ways to break through road blocks (those instances where the trail of an ancestor goes cold).
The registration fee for both days of the workshop is $25 for adults and $20 for students (12+)/seniors (55+). Reservations are highly recommended. The workshop is limited to 20 participants, so reserve your spot by calling the museum at (626) 968-8492 or clicking here to purchase tickets.