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 Many historical documents only list women by their married name, or even by the name of their husband.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. March is Women’s History Month, an ideal time to unravel the mysteries of undiscovered or little-known female relatives. Let these tips guide you!

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. What about widows whose husbands were in Say — UTAH after the Great Depression. Where many went astray because they lost everything. One man went to Prison up in Provo for 40 years and worked atbGeneva Steel out of the Prison. His wife divorced him and was forced by the State to give to them all of his Pioneer records, which were put into the library across from the Temple in SLC. The man had been either communicated and so was she, because her records disappear here. Shevwas penniless. He came from a VERY well known pioneer Family but unbeknownst to her, so did she. Her children were forbidden to be baptized with him as father, but before their deaths they did. There is that hole iin the wife’s history. The man had tried to kill her and had done unspeakable things to their daughters so once hevwas imprisoned they all changed their names to the name of the man she married next, although he never legally adopted any of the children. That second husband divorced her quickly. The wife of the prisoner who by that time had murdered another prisoner, became mentally unstable so she refused to talk about family history.

    Long story short — 1. what about prison records and 2. Why did the Church ( or was it UTAH- have the right to take away her Pioneer relics and deny her or her children or grandchildren from looking at them? They were from Kirtland, Nauvoo, journals from HER pioneer ancestry as well as his, because both of them had grandparents or great grandparents in the first group of ten coming with Brigham into Salt Lake.

    1. Have you tried the Church History Library on North Templpe? (Not to be confused with the Family History Library on West Temple)

      1. Have you tried the Church History Library on North Temple? (Not to be confused with the Family History Library on West Temple)

    2. The state doesn’t force anyone to give records to the LDS church or pioneer museum at the time of divorce. You’ve got it wrong.

  2. Those are all good advice, but you forgot newspapers. I’ve found a great deal about my female ancestors from contemporaneous newspapers. Small town newspapers in particular used to write about everything: who visited who, who went to which dance or party,worked for a charity, put on a show, or, in the case of my female ancestors was adjudged insane (repeatedly) or survived a revolution in China and later the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong.

  3. I have had good luck finding female relatives in the federal and state censuses by looking for them in the households of their daughters and granddaughters. I have also found a couple in the households of their sisters.

  4. While looking for information on diaries, I found a book in an area library that had brief histories on a handful of women. I checked the names listed and recognized a last name from my family history and general local. I checked the book out and found that she was a distance Aunt. I followed up on the references given for writing her profile, locating her diary in a distance area University library and got to read it through Interlibrary loan. Later I looked her up on the Internet and found a recently published copy with further text related to context in which she found herself during the time the diary was written. Within her diary she records something of her home life and feeling about her family. From her I learned what kind of a home life my distance Grandparents created. It was a gold mine in so many ways, and though I am not a direct decent to her, I feel close to her and my these grandparents.

    1. I also found a short diary online of an ancestor by Googling and entering diary, local, then looked for ancestors names. I was pleasantly surprised by the result.

  5. I have been lucky to find photos of relatives in my deceased mothers’ album. Many of these photos are labeled with names and places which have helped to identify relatives I’ve never met, but have heard of in family lore. Just as unfortunately, many photos are not labeled which would have been so helpful. So as you add your own photos to albums, please record vital information.

  6. Um, of little relevance, I found a woman who was related to me that I went back for later and I couldn’t find her. Please help

  7. I love seeing all that is happening. But as the years pass i am finding it difficult to see and the blue print is especially so and on an aside does not photocopy well.

    1. I agree. That was very interesting. Gave me some more hints on how to track down my mother’s cousin, Ilene M. Hamilton from State of Washington. Ilene was born in the State of Wisconsin. Just sent for her Death Certificate. Waiting to see what I can find about her and her mother and father. From what I have gathered, her mother divorced first husband because of his drinking habits. Also, found out that from family information, Ilene M.Hamilton committed suicide. If that is true over what? Maybe her Death Certificate will give me a clue. Also, when I called up her information on Ancestry.com it showed her husband might have been divorced. Ilene is buried in a different cemetery in State of Washington and he is buried at a family vault with his divorced wife in State of Washington. Also it showed she might have been married once before because of different name.

  8. Also remember in Prussian/Pomeranian records where the German language is used, the possesive case for the man’s wife is used for death records. Johann Schmidt’s, (sometimes bolded or underlined) wife (Ehefrau) Louisa nee Brandt passed away on…
    I have come across numerous cases in Ancestry where this has been transcribed to indicate that the man died rather than his wife.

  9. Another way I find out information about women is to go to Find a Grave. When I hit the Save button and then save it to a clipboard and then paste it on my Notes, a lot of information is revealed that is hidden unless this process is followed. I have found lots of women and children and other family members this way.