March is Women’s History Month and while you see plenty of coverage of high-profile women in the news and online, I think it’s equally important to honor the women in our own families. Their day-to-day struggles may not surface in history books, but their legacy lives on in the generations that followed them.
Finding the maiden names of the women in our tree is one obstacle that needs to be overcome. Often they are cloaked with their husband’s names, like Mrs. John Williams or Mrs. A. Smith. Even after the husband dies, you may see them listed as Widow Williams. But there is hope. Here are some sources that can reveal that elusive maiden name.
- Vital records. Birth records are an obvious choice and typically will include the mother’s maiden name. Marriage records will typically list the bride’s maiden name, and often the names of her parents and her mother’s maiden name. Death records will typically list parents’ names as well, often revealing a maiden name.
- The records of siblings. Record formats changed over the years, and from place to place, so information not provided on one child’s record may appear on that of another. If you’re not finding a maiden name for the mother of your ancestor on his or her records, try side-stepping to a sibling.
- Church records. Baptism records will often include the mother’s maiden name, and can provide the names of godparents and sponsors who may be relatives on the mother’s side of the family.
- Middle Names. You may see maiden names appearing as the middle name of one of her children. In some cases, some women may have adopted their own maiden name as a middle name after marriage. While this convention is most commonly seen in more recent years, some women did adopt this practice earlier. (Think Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)
- Probates. Since probates often spell out the relationships of heirs, these records can sometimes be a good resource for finding maiden names. Look especially for the probates of relatives who died without heirs, as their siblings and the siblings’ children would then be next in line for inheritance.
- Obituaries. Obituaries can be a great resource for finding maiden names. Even if a woman’s maiden name is not explicitly stated, the names of surviving relatives may reveal it.
- Witnesses and sponsors. Keep track of the names of sponsors and witnesses you find on legal documents, and in church and civil records. If you see a recurring name that you suspect could be your ancestress’ maiden name, try searching for her in censuses in which she would have been a child using that surname. Coupled with information you’ve found in later censuses after she was married, such as birth year and place, and the birth places of parents, you may be able to locate her. Of course, you’ll want to find supporting evidence of the relationship, but once you have a name, it is easier to prove or disprove a connection.
- Cemeteries. Another place you may find a woman reunited with her family is in the cemetery. She may be buried in the same plot as her parents or siblings, and or in a nearby plot. If possible, visit the cemetery in person and make note of the names on surrounding stones. Do any of them match up with the names of sponsors, witnesses or other associates?
- Home sources. Look through memorabilia that has been saved in your family. Note any unfamiliar names and ask other family members if they know anything. You may find a maiden name on the back of a photograph, in a scrapbook, on a funeral memorial card, or in an old address book.
- Military pensions. In cases where the widow applied, there would be proof required of the marriage so often maiden names are included in the form of a marriage record that was supplied. Also affidavits by the wife’s family are sometimes included.
Tracing our female ancestors can be challenging, but tools like online databases and every-name indexes to census records make it easier than ever to learn more about the heroines in our family tree.
About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.