Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on May 2, 2013 in Ask Ancestry Anne

Finding the maiden names of our female ancestors can be tough.  But sometimes finding the women in our family is difficult even after they get married.  Sometimes they just seem to vanish.

Here’s one who did just that for a while: Mary Jane Hudson. Here, she’s living with her husband, Lewellan Gillespie, and their three sons in Amherst, Virginia, in 1860.

After that, they seem to disappear. Neither Mary Jane Gillespie nor Lewellan Gillespie appears in any subsequent census records. And no death records, either.

So what do you do now?

First, look for the children.  I could not find Lewis or Robert, but I did find Charles Gillespie. He’s living with his grandparents Micajah and Elvira Hudson, Mary Jane’s parents.


There could be many possible reasons for this:

  1. The family has moved elsewhere and left their son with his grandparents to help out or for some other reason.
  2. Lewellan and Mary Jane have both died, leaving Charles an orphan.
  3. Lewellan has died, Mary Jane has remarried, and Charles has moved in with his grandparents.

Since I’ve already checked census and death records, marriage records make a logical next step. But there is no marriage record for a Mary Jane Gillespie in Amherst or surrounding counties on Now what?

You can widen the search to see if somebody out there knows something you don’t. Ancestry Member Trees and Message Boards can make a good next step. I find a tree that says Mary Jane died in September of 1870 and was married twice: first to Lewellan and then to Benjamin Franklin Campbell.

There are no sources listed, so reaching out to the member who published this would be a good idea.  Maybe he or she knows more than they have included here.

Campbell gives me another name to search, and I find a Benjamin and Mary Campbell in Amherst that might be them.


The and Rootsweb message boards offer another hint:

The Benjamin F. Campbell (or Benjamin Franklin) mentioned in #3 of Lilly's post of April 24th is the son of James W. Campbell and Jane Massie. He moved back to Amherst County and was married 4 times. His first wife was Sarah A. Mays (married 12 Nov. 1857 in Amherst County; second wife, Mary Jane Hudson, m. 13 Sept 1865 in Amherst Co.; third wife, Sally Ann Hudson, m. 27 Oct. 1875; and fourth, Lelia Ann Henson m. 27 Feb. 1890. Benjamin died 16 Dec. 1907 and is buried in the Amherst Cemetery. All of the marriage records can be found and several list James W. Campbell and Jane Massie as his parents.

Again, there is no source to go back and examine, but the post does provide some clues on where to go look.  And some suggestions on what happened to Mary Jane.

There are still plenty of questions.  What happened to Lewellan? Was he killed in the Civil War? And what happened to Robert and Lewis?

We always hope to find our ancestors right where we expect them, leaving behind a trail of easy-to-follow clues.  But there are always a few who seem to try to remain in the shadows.  Look everywhere!  The answers are out there.

Happy Searching!

Ancestry Anne

Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at She is an active blogger on and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.


  1. Linda Bartlett

    The female spouse of my emigrant family arrived with 7 family members and her husband. Her husband died within weeks of their arrival and move to Milwaukee, WI. I found her in the closest and next census and lost her and ALL the family members after that. There was no apparent record of their return to Great Britain.

    She and they ALL DID SHOW UP, though, on the St/WI records as having undergone a formal name change through the state’s legal processes and I was then able to reconnect with and follow them on their paths ‘down the line.’

    Having accomplished THAT connection I was also led to a message on the name message boards, which highlighted one of the offspring arriving as a professional member of his community, photo and all. Does it get any better? Not likely!


  2. Sandy Cecere

    I have had this happen to me. My gr gr grandparents came to America from Germany in about 1864. My gr grandmother I have found- her death records, birth of her children- marriage certificate- however; I can’t find her parents who I know came with her and lived in the same town. Everything I know about them is conjecture. I even have a picture of them. I have been looking for them for over 20 yrs. My gr gr grandmother even died in my gr grandmother’s home. The death certificate says Mrs Brandenburg and leaves out her first name. It is very frustrating.

  3. Julia Terhune

    I know my great-great grandparents’ names, dates of death and approximate birthdates from their burial records, but I have never been able to find them in census records and I don’t know her maiden name. All I can surmise is that the surname was misspelled or a hyphen left out on the burial records. These date back to the 1860s and -70s. The ledger lists them both and even gives the place of death, but I have never found out where Chestnut Island is and can find no John Winklott living in Paterson, New Jersey prior to his date of death. On the only other record I have found, my great-grandmother’s maiden name is listed in the marriage registry as Winkle. Also in that registry her husband’s first name is listed as Conrad rather than Leonard so sometimes it’s difficult to rely on very old records. In any case I have looked everywhere for the surname Winklott and haven’t found it anywhere. Family tradition says they were from New York but I am wondering if they weren’t immigrants and the name wasn’t americanized. I would be grateful for any suggestions. Julia

  4. Cassie Frank

    @Julia Terhune:

    There is a Chestnut Island in Virginia. Have you looked into that as possible location?

  5. Jessie Chesnut-Clutton-Hanke

    From London, Ontario. Searching for Chesnut relatives of Margaret Chesnut and Robert (George), slave, who escaped to Kintore, Ontario, 1823. Verbal historical story: Margaret Chesnut, daughter of plantation owner from South (I think Camden, SC) was having an arranged marriage. She went to her most trusted slave (I add they loved each other)and said if you take me to Canada I will marry you. After mom (Isabel Chesnut Clutton)passed away over 20 years ago I uncovered this story which had not been out in the open. Hopefully searching, Jessie

  6. Tina

    @Linda Hutchins, click on “add family member” choose “spouse” it will make another wife!

  7. Bob Belair

    Similar situation happened to me.
    My great grandmother was a Germain from Canada.
    Married an Alfred Belair in 1880’s in Massachusetts.
    Found here on a census living in a small town in Mass in 1880 census.
    Knew she had a son, my grandfather, with Alfred about 1885 through town birth records.
    Alfred passed away before 1890 census.
    But neither my great grandmother or her son showed up in 1890 census in that small town.
    Where was she … well she never actually left that town,
    After Alfred died, she moved back in with her Germain family and went back to using he Maiden name.
    She had moved back in with her brother and his Germain family.
    Whoever did the census assumed that this being the Germain household, everyone in that house nust be a Germain.
    My great grandmother’s full name was this: Marie Emile Amanda Germain.
    She used the name Amanda Germain because there was another Marie Emile germain in the family.
    In that same 1900 census was a 5 year old male called Aldric Alfred Germain.
    He was listed as “nephew” of the Germain head of household.
    Amanda Germain was the sister of the male Germaun “head of household”, Aldrich Alfred was therefore correctly listed as his “nephew” and he was my grandfather … aged 5 years old in the 1890 census.
    In the next 1900 census Amanda was correctly listed as Amanda Belar, widowed, and her named as Aldrich Alfred was indeed listed as her son.
    She had never left that small town.

  8. Bob Belair

    Sorry for the spelling mistakes and typos on the previous post, but I think you get the idea of what I meant to say.

  9. Here the question was about higher ancestor generations, who are not alive any more.

    But I have a little bit different problem tracing a live person, my female distant in-law (age 80) who disappeared after her second marriage that took place somewhere in Alberta in 1970 and moved with the spouse to Las Vegas, Nevada. The problem has arisen because both Canadian and US authorities stick to the term of 75 years after marriage for providing information to non next of kins. Supposedly she still lives somewhere in Las Vegas.

    My last but one attempt was to make use of the letter forwarding services of the SSA, to that I had provided all the necessary information, they had asked, but got an answer that only her SSN, that I do not know, would be useful.

    Eventually I found the web side: of the Election Office of Clark County with voter lists, but couple of months too late, because the inactive voters who were inactive before 2010, and have not voted so far, have been cancelled from the list.

    Could I ask for a hand and support to my petition to Mr. Harvard “Larry” Lomax, Clark County Registrar of Voters ( for adding the cancelled voter file to already published voter files, just for genealogical purposes?

    Miroslav Krzak
    2 Vince
    10000 Zagreb
    Phone/Fax: (00)(385)(1) 557-9988

  10. Suggestion for No 3: Leonard / Conrad is just a transcription error between different handwriting styles … I take it Sandy has tried familysearch, a lot of German records on there and even more in their huge collection of films. If she knows the name of the town her ancestors came from and their faith, then it is possible that she could find the appropriate civil and or church records in one of the LDS library films. Failing that, it could be worthwhile googling this German town, finding the civil authorities, asking if the place has a family history society, etc. Some German churches have taken to creating books of family data compiled from their baptismal, marriage and burial data, and very helpful they are too because they unravel all the different spellings for you. Though there shouldn’t be different spellings after about 1810.
    Suggestion for No 4: The name recorded as Winkle may well have been Winkel, which means “shop” in Dutch and of course NY was once New Amsterdam. I believe some records of the early New York Dutch survive and perhaps ancestry can tell you where.
    No 8: it is perfectly normal in many European countries for women to retain their birth surnames throughout life, at least so far as the civil authorities are concerned. To them, a woman registered at birth as Mary Smith is always Mary Smith, even if she happens to be married to Mr Brown. She can continue to call herself Mary Smith after marriage, or she can be Mrs Brown, or Mrs Brown-Smith. When the marriage ends through death or divorce, her married identity goes with it, though she can of course continue to call herself Mrs Brown if she wishes. Nevertheless, if she remarries, she does so as Mary Smith. I should think this would be pretty common amongst recent immigrants from Germany, Holland, etc.
    Lastly, it would help enormously if transcribers did not add a woman’s married name where it does not appear in the original – for example, there are many instances of this in the transcripts of Toronto Canada marriages. How are we supposed to find Mary Smith if your transcribers persist in in recording her and indexing her as Mary Brown? Apart from anything else, Mary Smith does not become Mary Brown until AFTER the wedding. Also, her mother and mother in law may well be Mrs X and Mrs Y, but the actual record gives their maiden names and this is what should be transcribed.
    People who have uploaded trees on to the site also tell me that where a wife’s surname is unknown [at least to them], ancestry supplies one – her husband’s. Please don’t do this!
    Yes, it is difficult to find the maiden names of married women so please do not make it make it harder
    10. What capcha code? It was blank. When I tried again, I got a rude message. I am thoroughly unimpressed

  11. Sandra

    I can’t find Lise Iversdatter Skjeggestadhagen (18 Aug 1846), or her mother, Kari Simensdtr Brettingsbakken (3 Nov 1805). It’s possible that she died in quarantine? in Ontario, Canada as Kari’s spouse Iver Olsen Skjæggestadhagen (31 Aug 1811) died at sea on the way here with Lise and my great grandmother (Martine Johnsdatter Skjæggestad (1870)). I can follow them to Ontario, but then they fall off the planet, but somehow my 2nd great grandmother was sent to her (unmarried) biological father. Her obituary says that her mom died when she was five, but I can’t find her.

  12. Sheila Bundy

    @Sandy Cecere: Do you have any idea WHERE in Germany your ancestors came from? There was no Germany in 1864 and there was a huge influx of immigrants from Ostfriesland, which at that time belonged to Prussia and then Hannover. If you have an idea of the area, I could help you search German sources. None of my German-immigrant ancestors used the same name they were baptized with after arriving in Illinois. And my g-g-grandmother deducted 5 years off her age!

  13. Sheila Bundy

    My 3rd great grandfather Henry Proctor BINGAMAN had two wives, 17 kids, and left kids scattered behind him each time he moved further west. My 2nd great grandmother was the oldest and he left her behind in Indiana. She was married at 14 and in the 1850 census with the husband. I can’t prove Mildred is Henry’s daughter and she is our only tie to the DAR. The rest were Quakers. I have run out of places to look. Anyone have any ideas?

  14. Patricia Hollenback

    I have been searching for years the father and mother of my grandmother Mary Jenkins. Story goes that she was born in West Virginia or Ohio in the Pickaway co area. That her father’s last name was Rice, she married my grandfather and his name was Frank C. Hollenback Jr. in and about the 1920’s. She gained the name of Jenkins because her mother married a John Jenkins. Her mother’s name was Florence Vannoy from WV. But for the life of me I have not been able to connect Mary to WV for Ohio, nor showing that Florence was really her mother. I have her date of birth but it seems to go no where. I have not been able to find a birth certificate on Mary Jenkins or proof that Florcence is her mother nor anything on her mother. I find Florence with parents born in 1880 but nothing until she dies in 1941. Mary Jenkin Hollenback dies the same year in Oct of 1941. Any suggestions I will try,thanks

  15. Linda Bartlett

    1. Name change
    2. Adoption by family or allied fam w/same or different last name
    3. Marriage, relocate
    4. Following religious movement through town, ie. Mormons, Quakers, w/related but invisible name change

    I’ve found that researching the history of your known town/county/state helps to identify possible reasons for disappearing persons (movement from MA to ME 1700’s). There is often considerable published town history in early America’s, including family histories, often with subtle or outright differences. Google family state/town/family name and you’ll be amazed what you might find.

    SOLUTION: noodle, noodle, noodle with curiosity & patience. And enjoy the finds! Linda

  16. Something I do to find family members is to look and the findagrave postings. If I know where a parent is buried I first look at everyone with the same last name. In finding daughters sometimes its a little harder. I look at all of the postings for the female daughters first name and birth date. Sometimes when I find a missing female her memorial will state who she is the daughter of.
    You will also find children who were born and died in between census records in the same way. posts findagrave on its web site. I search every name
    that doesn’t show up as an historical document. Be sure and use the common name changes that occur such as Jim for James. Also search using the first initial of a persons name.

    John Meyer

  17. Edwina Powell

    My Gr Gr grandmothers name is Mary. She was the cook at the Coker plantation in Darlington county South Carolina. She , according to census records was Mullato. She married my Gr Gr grandfather Nelson Gadison (spelling varies slightly) in 1875 in Hartsville, Darlington county South Carolina.They had about 12 or more kids including my Gr grandma Sarah who had my grandma Sally who had my mother Onether who had me. My dilemma is we know Nelson Gadison was born from freed slaves and had one sis and 3 brothers and worked as a farmer on Coker plantation but I can’t find any background info about Mary his wife!! No one seems to have a picture but I heard they both lived to near 100 years old. Please help!

  18. Jeanne Simcock Thompson

    I have been looking for my mother’s past for over 15 years. She was adopted by a Eugene Goodwin family in Haverill, MA. She was born on March 27, 1913, and passed away on July 5, 1984.
    She told us that her maiden name was “Brechette”. I don’t know if that is the correct spelling or not. Apparently records in Dover NH were destroyed in a fire there some years ago. I have her SS#, but I don’t think that will help me because she got one several years after she married and divorced my father. I need your help somehow, My husband’s family is traceable, but mine on my mother’s side is not.

  19. Melanie Mueller

    I found that my great grandmother, Maria Josephine or Josephine Maria sometimes went by Josephine, sometimes by Maria and sometimes by Mary. I ended up combing through census records page by page and found her with the spelling of Marry! Obviously a mistake by the census taker in that instance, but it helped identify them in the city directories.

  20. Elizabet

    Interesting article, I also received an email from regarding this topic. The subject line of this email was “Missing a mom? Here’s how to find her.” Wow!!! This should have been thought through a bit more by your marketing team. How about those of us who have lost their mothers? Mothers day is already a difficult holiday, and seeing your email this morning was like a punch in the stomach. Please be more thoughtful next time!!!

  21. Dawn

    I would have to agree with you about getting the e-mail about “Missing a Mom”. I just lost my mother suddenly 6 months ago. I think a little more thought from the marketing team could have been put into this. I was a little upset myself as was Elizabet.

  22. BEE

    #20 it’s possible your mother’s SS application would have the names of her parents if she knew them, but the last time I sent in my $27 for the copy of an application, they sent me a copy of the application with the parent’s names whited out and informed me that because of new “laws”, I needed proof that the parents of a man were deceased.
    If the gentleman were living, he would be 97 years old! What are the chances these people are alive!!
    If I had proof his parents died, I would most likely have their names, which is the whole purpose of sending for the application!
    So if you do send for a copy of your mother’s SS application, perhaps a cover letter with all the information you have might work, although I’d tell them if they won’t send a copy with the names on it, don’t cash your check as they did mine!

  23. Karen

    I have a ggrandfather who has “vanished”. Born in 1832, immigrated in 1899 then living with son’s family in Arapahoe County, South Globeville, CO in the 1900 census. After that there is no trace. Presumably he died? But I’ve checked cemeteries, talking with sextons, had correspondence with CO Vital Records more than once – even looked for him in Canada. No luck. BUT I did find a 1920 census that I keep wondering about. His name, George Weber, appears as George Toebex in Denver, CO in what would appear as a boarding house (or institution?)
    What makes me suspicious is that ALL of the residents, about 50 and counting, are “born in NS-transcribed as Nova Scotia” with mother and fathers born in the USA. How unlikely is that? Could it be that the NS really means “not stated”?

  24. Toni

    I have a great great grandmother who married, had children and died after 1860 census and before 1870 census. How in the world will I find her? The children’s birth records that I have found on line say Mary Elizabeth (married) Walker. I can’t find a marriage or a for sure death for her or her husband. Suddenly her children are living with an uncle. I have everything but the birthmark for the father’s side. I have Mary Elizabeth for the mother’s side. I looked at the entire 1860 census for a Mary or Elizabeth or Mary Elizabeth living hear him and was able to rule out every single Mary, Elizabeth and Mary Elizabeth! So I don’t even know where he met her or married her. 1800 and 1866 have been the thorns in my side for dead ends. My remaining relatives who don’t want to be found stop there.

  25. Linda Rood

    I have several Elizabeth’s in my family tree. I have found that a lot of times a nickname shows up in the census as in Beth and/or Libby. Males often use their middle names, especially if they are named after their father. Hope this helps a little.

  26. Marie

    I found a great great grandmother’s maiden name and her father’s name when he gave her a slave. It was recorded in the property transactions for the county. It stated I ..give to my daughter.. who has married with… It was just luck that I found it. Maiden names turn up in land transactions a lot in my family too.

  27. BEE

    I’ve found the best way to find people is to start with the latest census, add all names of those in the family, then search for any born before the last census.
    If you are lucky, someone will have an unusual name that makes it easier to search. Many times I don’t add the surname, especially if it’s an ethnic name or one that is frequently spelled incorrectly, which sometimes works better than trying to search with ? or * in place of letters – and yes, I prefer “old search”. The problem comes when the whole family uses a middle name or ethnic name is the previous census, or as in one family, the young men were all jokesters, and made up names using their initials on an early census.

  28. Judy

    Some state death indexes–such as California (1940-1997) and North Carolina (1909-1975)–record the father’s surname and the mother’s maiden name on death records. For example: my mother’s California Death Index record has my grandfather’s surname and my grandmother’s maiden name. Sometimes I’ve had to check all of a person’s siblings and all their children to find such a record, but it paid off in several cases. I also found a 1916 Montana marriage license with the maiden names of the mothers of the bride *and* groom. Check any documents for unexpected information.

  29. Jeanine Saunders

    @ Melanie Mueller

    Was your ancestor French? The French pronounce Marie as Maree. My 2nd great grandmother was generally listed as Maria Antoinette and called Mary Ann. I question the Maria as there are several named Marie in her family.

  30. Hi, have been traveling and just downloaded the
    info on missing moms. I have one for you.
    My great-grandmother was born in Ireland, married
    my great-grandfather in US. Have them in US census
    and children. They lived in Washington DC in 1880.
    I know he died in 1900, as I found the obit, and he is listed at the home of one of my Uncles by marriage. I know all of their children, names and
    records from then up to now. My grandfathers obit
    list her last name as McKay. No records for next
    census. No one in family so far has any records on
    her. The next census 1900, the daughters are living with one of the uncles and my grandfather is living at age 14 with unknowns. Take it she might have past away. Thanks for the article. Still I have my questions. Louise Gaskins (Tacky4you)

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