Those Pesky, Elusive Females in Your Ancestry

family-tree-295298_640I personally can’t think of a pastime, hobby or career choice that would be more rewarding than genealogy but as a long-time family historian, and a Southerner inclined to a bit of nitpicking, I do have my complaints. If I could wave a magic wand, I would install good record-keeping, all the way back to our earliest beginnings and insist that women be documented and named in every record in which they should be named. Not just their given names BUT their maiden names as well. Every time I manage to identify another female ancestor, I get a nice, warm feeling that pushes me forward to tackle another one. Let’s look at the whys and the ways of researching female ancestors.

I’ve often wondered if the failure to work female lines in a family tree by a lot of family historians is because they are rooted in the belief that the line from which their family name comes down to them is the only one that really counts or if it is because it is just darn difficult at times, especially when you get back to the early 20th century and beyond. Let me start by listing some reasons I think it is important to research female lines (and their siblings).

  1. It is HALF your family tree. Have you ever seen a tree mutilated on one side by the electric company with their chainsaws? It looks sad and disfigured. Trees look so much better when they have many branches and none are stunted.
  2. Every child carries their mother’s mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is in every cell of your body and you have a lot of it because you have a lot of cells. So, your female ancestors up through your mother are a part of you in a larger way than your autosomal DNA from both parents that we all carry from our various ancestors.
  3. If you ever plan to take a DNA test and use it to help develop your genealogical tree, the more you have already researched, the more useful will be the DNA results. DNA will not take the place of a well-research genealogical family tree but it can confirm a lot. People often express frustration with being unable to figure out how people listed as 2nd or 3rd cousins are related when there are no common names. While there is always the possibility that there is a family secret in there somewhere, it is more likely that both cousins haven’t researched their female lines (and the siblings of their ancestors) well enough to pick up the rapidly expanding list of names that will generate cousins.

We have some of the whys, let’s talk about some search methods before we look at alternate records.  There can be any number of reasons why you can’t find a marriage record for a pair of your ancestors. To name a few:

  • The record has been lost over time.

Fires occurred in local and state repositories over the years, both intentionally and unintentionally. Parts of the South have had a somewhat loose structure for maintaining records and it has changed over time. Check in both local and state repositories for the years their records cover and ask if the year range you are looking for might be somewhere else.

  • The name(s) were recorded differently than you are searching for.

Spelling has only recently been standardized, especially for names, and not every clerk was a spelling bee champion. Often names were spelled as they sounded. And if you are using an online index, keep in mind that the transcriber could have misinterpreted a letter or two. I searched for years for my great-grandparents marriage license.  I knew they were both in Baldwin Co, AL in 1880 but that proved fruitless.  I searched in surrounding counties without luck.  I finally found them in Escambia Co, FL.  John Jesse Barrow’s name was listed as Jesse Barras and Lucenie “Cennie” Hinote’s name was Cena Hinote.


  • You are looking in the wrong place.

If the marriage occurred very early in Florida panhandle history, you should familiarize yourself with the geography and history of towns and communities where your ancestors lived. Don’t make the mistake of assuming your ancestors had the same options for marriages as you would today. Churches, when they existed, were few and far between and pastors were often circuit riders and only onsite occasionally. The closest town where a couple could be married might be in another county or in an adjoining state. Remember early in the Florida panhandle history our ancestors dropped into Florida from Alabama and Georgia and often didn’t move far from the borders. The roads, when they existed often went north before they went south, east, or west.  One or both of them might have had family still in an adjoining state and they went back there to marry.

  • It was a common law marriage.

These might be long-term or short-term. Short-term was often because the preacher wasn’t going to be back for a few months so the couple would declare they were married to the community, set up a household and when the preacher next came to town they got married. It may or may not have been recorded in official records. And it may or may not have ever been presided over by a preacher.

So what other records can you use to discover a female ancestor’s maiden surname?

  • Start by using census records to identify all of the children in the family, not just your ancestor. Research each of them forward in time and try to identify where and when they died. Try to obtain a death certificate for them. It may indicate the mother’s maiden name if it was known by the informant. If several of the children have the same maiden name listed for their mother, chances are it is correct. The informant may not have known or remembered the name and the informant may not have been a member of the same family so keep that in mind. Record who the informant was.
  • Look for wills and probate records for both the husband of the woman you are trying to identify and for the children of the woman. Often male relatives (fathers or brothers) of a woman would witness the will or be administrators for the estate of the husband to protect her interests. Research those men to see if you can find records that name their siblings.
  • Look for land records where property was sold by your male ancestor and his wife had to sign a statement that she agreed to the sale. This means she brought the land into the marriage or inherited it from parents or a sibling. Research the land for who owned it prior to her and her husband. This may give you a surname and some detail on this family line.
  • A common practice back in the day was naming a son after his two grandfathers. Usually, the paternal grandfather was the first given name and the maternal grandfather’s given name was the middle name. If you have one of these in the children, try searching census records (if she would have been in her parents household from 1850 forward) for an area using the name for her potential father and her given name as one of the children. You may get more than one hit so you will need to research each line to try and exclude or include them in possibilities.
  • Search in old newspapers for obituaries for all members of the family. Obits aren’t standard and some families have people who are comfortable in writing and some don’t. Some of these will have loads of detail and others nearly nothing. But being thorough means checking.
  • Another naming convention that we can find a lot in Southern families is giving a son the mother’s maiden name as a middle name.  If it is a name not found much as a given name then this will work well.  If the name is often found in both given and surnames, then it can be worth the research but may not produce positive results.
  • Pension applications, especially from the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States), may provide information on the wife’s maiden name.  Order the entire application, or download it if available online and read it in detail.  Research anyone in the record who provided an affidavit.  One or all may be related.
  • Research the neighbors of your target family in the census records. Families often moved together and intermarried over time. Do a thorough search of records for the families that seem to be there over a long period of time. It isn’t uncommon that one line of a family leaves much more detailed records than the one you descend from. I speak from painful experience!
  • Never miss a chance to share information with potential cousins. They may have done more research on the line you are working on or they could have approached it differently and developed a different set of sources and documents. Sometimes the sharing creates a more complete picture of the family that ties disparate pieces together. Don’t be ashamed to gauge their commitment to family research instead of just name collecting and assuming. Ask for sources of information and do your own research in those sources to see if you arrive at the same conclusions.

Make this a year where you break through one of those female brick walls. You never know. That might be the line that provides a link to a well-known person or a critical event in our history or it just might prove to you that you really are related to everyone else who has a long family history in the panhandle.

Until Next Time


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