Posted by Jessica Morgan on June 22, 2018 in Who Do You Think You Are?

When Megan Mullally began her journey into the past, she discovered that many records for her family belonged to her male ancestors. She learned the sad truth that most legal documents in the 19th century related to men, with far fewer records belonging to women at the time. Megan realized, like many others researching their family tree, the frustrations of trying to document the lives of female ancestors. Many women, despite their bravery and fortitude, have their stories left untold. Fortunately, legal records about male ancestors can often have helpful details about their female relatives. When researching Elizabeth Mullally Venable (Megan Mullally’s 2x great-grandmother), many documents didn’t even list her by name, yet they helped to piece together her intriguing story.

The story of Elizabeth came alive through records relating to her second husband, James Venable. In 1865, James applied for a presidential pardon for his service in the Confederate Army. The application focused on James but, on closer examination, we can learn details about Elizabeth. In 1865, Elizabeth lived at 409 N. Nineteenth Street in Philadelphia. She was forced, along with her husband and children, to flee the South during the war because of her husband’s pro-Union loyalties. It was in these conditions that Elizabeth bore her first daughter, Mary Ellen, in Philadelphia. There had been a big question mark over why Elizabeth had a daughter in Pennsylvania while the rest of her children were born in Georgia, but the answer was found thanks to her husband’s application papers. It was no doubt traumatic for Elizabeth to have a child in an unfamiliar city, shortly after traveling 800 miles from her hometown. Fortunately, the family was able to return to Georgia the following year.

While James’s application never mentioned Elizabeth by name, it gave a glimpse into her life during the tumultuous years of the Civil War, and why she lived so far away from home. Thanks to this record, Megan Mullally learned about the trials and fortitude of her 2x great-grandmother. Follow the tips below and find out how you too can uncover brave and extraordinary women in your family tree.

Tips from AncestryProGenealogists: When searching for female ancestors, don’t forget to check the records of their male family members:

  • While researching Elizabeth Venable, we located many deeds which referred to her land purchases. While this was quite unusual for the time period, land deed records are still frequently useful while tracing your female ancestors. Land deed records for men will often name their wife. While some women in the 19th century did own land, the majority of land transactions were between men. That doesn’t mean that your female ancestor may not have been mentioned in deeds for her husband.
  • Probate records frequently refer to wives and daughters by name. They may also include details about who the daughters married or with whom they were living.
  • As in the example above, military records can be very helpful. Many soldiers and their widows applied for pensions from the government later in life. The applicants were often required to provide proof of service, or proof of marriage, or other important details and so these files frequently contain a large amount of information.
  • When searching for newspaper articles regarding female relatives, remember that articles may refer to her by her maiden name, married name, or she may not be named at all. When searching for articles relating to Elizabeth, we searched for “Elizabeth Venable” “Mrs. James E. Venable” “Mrs. J. E. Venable,” amongst others. In other cases, she was simply referred to as “wife,” and so records were only located when searching under her husbands’ names.
  • As well as researching your female ancestor’s spouses, make sure to research all her children, even those who are not your direct ancestors. Census records revealed that Elizabeth had eight children. While 7 children were born in Georgia, one daughter Mary Ellen, was born in Pennsylvania, which was our first indicator that Elizabeth didn’t spend all her adult life in Georgia. Mary Ellen’s death record, dated December 1928, revealed that she was born in Philadelphia. This record, created over 25 years after Elizabeth’s death, provided us with our first clue as to Elizabeth’s movements during the Civil War.


Watch Megan Mullally’s full journey, download the TLC GO app or watch on Binge full episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? on, and discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes Mondays 9|8c on TLC.

Jessica Morgan

Jessica Taylor is an Editorial Researcher at Ancestry. She received a Masters in history at the University of York and has worked as an accredited genealogist for many years. She's presented at genealogy conferences and performed research for the hit TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” Jessica loves history and helping people discover their past.


  1. Robyn E Gill

    Just noticed my father doesn’t show on tree as my father so this makes all other connections with me wrong. How to fix??

    • sokolee

      on your profile page, click EDIT then EDIT RELATIONSHIPS, now look at what the box says about your father in the little box to the far right of his name. Should say biological( there are other choices in that box) If that is correct then its probably the relationship function acting up again. Check that Who You Are in this Tree is set to you…click the down arrow on the black bar with the tree name on it then click Settings and look for Who You Are….

  2. Susie Q`

    I was searching for my cousin Russell Crawford in the and got 425 hits……. Four hundred were because Mrs. Russell Crawford attended some social function…. LOL.

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