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 Many historical documents only list women by their married name, or even by the name of their husband.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.”
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.
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.
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.
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