Tips for Researching Your Female Ancestors

1. Use cluster genealogy. Cluster genealogy is the idea that ancestors lived in a cluster of relatives, family, friends, neighbors, etc. Look at the records of individuals in the woman’s clusters to find evidence about her.

2. Don’t limit your cluster research to direct line only.

3. Start with vital records. If there are none for your female ancestor, look for her children or husband. You may find her maiden name, place and date of birth, and other information.

4. Look for home sources such as family bible records, letters, diaries, postcards, quilts, certificates of vital records, funeral cards, report cards, scrapbooks, photo albums, recipe books, newspaper clippings, deeds, passports, medical records, etc.

5. Look for published sources: family histories, local and county histories, genealogy periodicals, local newspapers.

6. Consider her roles and how those could lead to information sources:

  • Wife – deeds may mention wife’s name; military pensions may have been applied to by the wife or she may be mentioned in her husband’s records; city directories mention widows/widowers; wills may list wife’s or in-laws names.
  • Mother or mother-in-law – military record of children may list parents; probate records may list her maiden name; research all possible children; parents often lived with their adult children when they are older, census records may reveal this. This can reveal a woman’s maiden name.
  • Sister or sister-in-law – Obituaries may list surviving siblings.
  • Citizen – court records: civil, criminal, divorce, census, city directories, passenger lists, voter records, naturalization records.
  • Resident – diaries of other women, letters, newspapers.
  • Church member – membership rolls, minutes, baptisms, marriages, confirmations, burials.
  • Consumer – store ledgers.
  • Employee – business records.
  • Club member – membership rolls, meeting minutes.
  • Student – yearbooks, school publications records.

7. Focus on location. What records were available where she lived?

8. Focus on opportunity. What was available to her where she lived? What community resources could she have been involved with?

9. Focus on circumstances. What events happened in her lifetime and in her community?

10. Pull together clues to make an indirect evidence case.

11. Unusual first or middle names may indicate the mother’s maiden name. Example: Fairfield.

12. Land records – Be conscious of land sales for small amounts of money ($1.00). If you see a transaction to her husband like this, it could be from her family.

13. Orphan and guardianship records – If a woman was left a widow with minor children they would have likely been granted a guardian, who may have been a male relative.

14. Keep in mind that her name may have changed over time. She may have gone by a nickname or her middle name.

15. If you run into a brick wall:

  • Map out her family cluster and consider what records could be available about her. 
  • Reframe questions. Instead of “what was her maiden name?” ask “who could have been her parents?”
  • Identify possibilities (i.e. parents, siblings) and then eliminate all but the most likely.

16. Check out these books in the Humanities Department:

  • The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women’s Genealogy – Christina Kassabian Schaefer – HSS*CS14.S33 1999
  • Discovering Your Female Ancestors: Special Strategies for Uncovering Hard-to-Find Information about Your Female Lineage – Sharon DeBartolo Carmack – HSS*CS14.C385 1998

17. Read case studies – Identify case studies by using HeritageQuest Online (HQ). HQ is a database which includes a periodicals index called PERSI. It indexes how-to articles as well as other topics. HQ is available at every B&ECPL location and from home if you have a library card.

18. Identify likely repositories of women’s resources in the areas where she lived. Check out public, university, and state libraries, as well as historical societies.

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