3 Ways to Unravel the Mysteries of Women in Your Family Tree

March 16, 2015  - by 

An old photograph. A woman sits before a plain backdrop in a white linen dress. Extraordinary wisdom is reflected in her expressive eyes.

You remember your mother saying that this was a great aunt, but otherwise the woman in the picture is shrouded in mystery. “Her story must be known!” you think. “What she must have seen and done!”

Surfacing information about your female ancestors can provide great inspiration. It can also be more challenging than discovering details about male relatives. Many historical documents only list women by their married name, or even by the name of their husband.

We all have brave and inspiring female ancestors – women of conviction – deserving to have their stories told. Let these tips guide you to unraveling the mysteries of undiscovered or little-known female relatives.

1. Mine Male Records

Unraveling the mysteries of women relatives, says genealogist Michael John Neill of RootDig.com, doesn’t begin with researching female ancestors. “The first step,” he tells FamilySearch, “is to fully document the male ancestor and to look for hidden clues that will lead to information about the women in his life.”

Look for records from male ancestors.

Start by looking at probate records for your male ancestors. Women in the past often didn’t receive automatic guardianship of inherited money or estates. Therefore, if a husband died owning property or a business, the remaining family members would often go to probate court in order to determine who would oversee finances.

Estate records of male relatives can also reveal names or locations of female ancestors. Fathers, brothers, and uncles may all leave part of their estate to the women in their family. Even if the will doesn’t give a female ancestor’s last name, accounting records might have more details.

You can locate probate records through FamilySearch’s historical records search.

2. Let History Be Your Guide

To shine a light on the stories of female ancestors, Lisa Alzo of The Accidental Genealogist recommends creating a timeline of historical events that took place during their lives. These events can shed invaluable perspective and identify cause-and-effect situations. For instance, you might find that the Great Depression or World War II propelled your mother or grandmother into the work force.

Create a timeline of ancestors' life events.

War widows also frequently had to provide details about their relationship and life when applying for a pension after a husband’s death. If a male ancestor served in the military in the 19th or early 20th century, details about female ancestors may be contained in pension records.

To create a historical timeline that matches up with your female ancestor’s life:

  • Establish a timeline that begins with the woman’s birth and ends with her death.
  • Detail everything you know about her, including her marriage date and children’s birth dates and places.
  • Add in life events, such as migrations and hospitalizations, as you uncover them.
  • Incorporate significant national and international events, such as wars and epidemics.
  • Work in local events you discover in county histories, which are often available at libraries and online bookstores.

You can get started on a timeline by finding birth and death records at FamilySearch’s Search Historical Records page.

3. Hunt for Headstones

“Loving wife and mother of six dedicated to helping those less fortunate.”

We can learn so much from gravestones. These markers often vividly evoke the spirit of departed family members. Tom Comstock of BillionGraves says an ancestor’s final resting place can also be an excellent source of detail about women relatives.

The gravestone of a female ancestor may provide the last place she lived and uncover family relationships, middle and maiden names, and dates of birth and death. Emblems on headstones can reveal religious beliefs, professions, and memberships. Epitaphs may reveal a wide range of details about an ancestor’s life.

Find headstones of female relatives.

To start your headstone hunt, Tom recommends visiting the BillionGraves Index on FamilySearch. “If you can find one member of your family,” he says, “you can often find many others who were connected with that person by looking at the people who were buried nearby.”

Researching female ancestors can be a challenge, but just one hidden clue can help you unravel the mystery of that little-known great aunt – or another relative who proves to be a woman of conviction. By piecing these stories together, you’ll enrich your family legacy while honoring the heritage of female ancestors this Women’s History Month.

You may also like:

Clues to What a Woman’s Life Was Like

Clues about a woman's life.

Find Stories of Inspiration from Fearless Females

Inspirational stories about female ancestors.

A Mother Whose Price Is Far Above Rubies

The story of a mother's example.

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  1. How do I find adoption records for the US->OH->Summit County->Akron? I saw the records for 1969 were unsealed, but when I called for my information I was told the records warehouse had burned. Would there be other places that held duplicate records maybe?

  2. My grandfather was considered a bastard child in North Carolina he was put in the orphanage at the age of 6 in 1906 and I’m trying to find out information on his father side how do I go about that we have zero information anjum is birth record and orphanage paperwork has no information on his father

    1. If your grandfather is still alive, have his DNA tested, or any of his male descendants. We had no clue who was the father of my 3rd great grandfather but we know now because his legal descendants were tested.

  3. I need help finding out who my father is. I have done my DNA and it give me people I have no clue who they are. My mother is still living but she will not help me at all. She gave me up as an infant. Need help because I am 60 years old and really want to know if I have other bothers and sisters.

    1. Hi Katie! Thank you for your feedback. FamilySearch provides basic DNA education. Check out this link for more information. You may also want to reach out to the company where you tested to see what other kinds of educational resources they provide in helping you find your family. Good luck in your search and thank you for reading the blog!

  4. I’ve found my direct line going back to 1778 but then I’m stuck. He married in 1800 under the name Cope @ Swettenham and then moved to Heaton Mersey under the name Coups. Eventually the name remained until my grandfather changed it to Coupe. He was born 1881

  5. So I’m a direct descendant from my grandfather home we have no clue his father was how do I find out from my DNA who his father was

  6. I did a DNA search and got very good results that matched my genealogy research. However when my wife tried it she was sadly disappointed. What these DNA companies don’t tell you is female information is far less complete than male.

    1. If not already used it, try GEDmatch – see website for details of many free & useful DNA matching tools – worked well for both of us (M & F). Good Luck.