MyCinnamonToast® Genealogy

The Modern Search for Your Female Ancestors

by Edna Katherine French

Who ran to help me when I fell,
And would some pretty story tell,
Or kiss the place to make it well?
My mother.

—by Ann Taylor [1804]

How many moms do you have? Odd question to ask in an article about seeking your female ancestors, right? Wrong. You and I know that the first steps in genealogy begin with ourselves and we suspect that women's challenges are very different today in some pretty significant ways than they were in 1804 when the above quotation was written. In the first few paragraphs, I'm going to identify a number of genealogy issues that modern technology has dropped into the family group sheets. Some of these are pretty controversial, so let me state right here that I am not taking a stand on any of them. I am only identifying them. If reading about them bothers you, jump ahead a few paragraphs to the newer methods of solving the riddles that our female ancestors have left for us. But I believe it is important to know about modern issues that women face in recording their own genealogy because it is so easy to overlook one's own self in a constant focus backwards through time. I am also going to talk about some modern methods of searching for our female ancestors that weren't available even a year ago.

What was that first question; how many moms do you have? Let me ask another question. In the year 2000, how many ways are there to be a mom? Well, you could be a plain, old, ordinary, birth mom. You could adopt a baby. You could have some other woman's fetus transplanted from her uterus into yours, carry it to term and deliver it; that makes you a surrogate mom. You could have an in-vitro fertilized egg transplanted into your uterus, carry it to term and deliver it; that's another way to be a surrogate mom. You could be a grandmother raising your grandchildren all or mostly by yourself for a variety of reasons. You could be a mom because modern fertilization techniques allowed you to conceive and that was a miracle to you and your family. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Then there is the other side of the coin which I'll mention very briefly because it is also highly controversial and can have much pain associated with it. Many women are adopted, don't know their birth parents, and can't gain access to records which are sealed by the courts. Others don't know that they are adopted.

OK, You have the picture now, what's the point. Remember that the first and most important step in genealogy is to start with yourself. If you have more than one mom, whenever you are able to deal gently with your emotions, which may or may not be painful and acute, you'll probably be wondering what kind of genealogy to record for your posterity. Yes, they will want to know about you, just like you are interested in your ancestors.

In writing this tough piece of your genealogy, I hope that you are using one of the excellent, genealogy software programs on the market. Most will allow you to show multiple relationships. And you'll want to describe the additional important stuff in the notes section of the program. I can't emphasize this next point strongly enough; back up your genealogy data every time that you exit your program and store your backup diskette in a safe place. Better yet, alternate diskettes, using one on odd days and the other on even days. Your records are important!

In Year 2000, there are so many advances in medical techniques that your genealogy work has become increasingly important. If you've ever been to the doctor's office, you've noticed that they ask for your medical history so they can provide better treatment for you, personally. This medical history comes from your birth parents, so grab your own opportunity to pass the information that you have learned on to your progeny also. They'll appreciate your thoughtfulness.

The Year 1800 women and Year 1600 women struggled with the same tough emotions surrounding motherhood and childbirth that women of today experience, even though today there are more possible mom-child relationships. They and the authorities of that time also had societal constraints in recording data for their posterity (that's us). This sort of thing is what makes your genealogical research so very difficult. For example, in doing your research, you may find long intervals between the children of one of your female ancestors. Did she practice some form of successful birth control? Low income families couldn't afford to feed another child. Many women were so afraid of dying from childbirth that they desperately tried anything from drinking poisonous herbal brews to abortions that frequently caused death themselves. In such cases you might find an euphemistic cause of death cited such as septicemia, uterine cancer, or any other "acceptable" diagnosis. You may never be able to prove it, but you can put your thoughts in the notes section of your software, using words like possibly, likely, or probably to show that you do not have solid research to support your hypothesis.

You probably already know many of the traditional genealogical research methods, things like using census lists, probate records, etc. Our Recommended Books This Month provide a number of other methods specifically targeted toward locating female ancestors, where the search can be quite elusive as you may know by now if you've ever tried to find out anything about your great-aunt besides her last name. However, in the last year, a veritable explosion of new research tools has become available on the Web and I want to introduce you to just a few of them and to give some personal examples.

I was searching Cyndi's List (the first site listed below) for my husband's grandparents marriage in New York. I know, you're asking, what does this have to do with searching for your female ancestors. Have patience. I'm getting there. First I went to the main page, Cyndi's List. I clicked on the Main Category Index and scrolled down until I reached Marriages where I clicked again. There is probably a faster way, but I know I can get where I want to go through those thousands of links this way. I clicked on Marriages and began scrolling, looking for a search engine on New York marriages. All of a sudden I saw a site titled, "Buncombe County, NC Marriage Records".

Wow! Forget my husband's line. I have been trying to find out about two elusive great-aunts, who were supposedly sisters, and who were the first and third wives of my great-uncle. The marriages were either in North Carolina or South Carolina, so I search for these women at every opportunity. I crossed my fingers and clicked. There was a search engine to enter last names. So I did. My great-uncle's last name, which would have been their married name, was the same as my maiden name. That statement is important. I clicked again. I know you're holding your breath. No, there wasn't any information about my great-aunts. But a wondrous screen appeared. It was a genealogy, thoroughly documented, from my mother all the way to my matriarchal grandmother's ancestor born in 1761 in Limirick, Ireland. Cited in the sources was a letter that I had asked my grandmother to write to me giving me some family history. In the letter, she mentions my father's last name and that's how the search engine found this site! There was my letter from my grandmother on this marvel of a web page that I had found through a search engine or two. As my favorite grandfather, her husband, used to say, "My, my, my".

The above is a fine example of serendipity, where you are looking for one thing and actually find something else equally or more valuable. Now I have many female ancestors with whom to become acquainted.

Well, these two great-aunts were still nagging me, so before I turned in for the night, I had to make one more effort. I pulled up an obituary site,, and put their maiden name in the search engine. To my surprise a recent obituary popped up. The dates don't appear to match for this man to be the father or grandfather of either great-aunt, but one of his daughters listed in the obituary has a first name that is a variation on the unusual first name of one great-aunt, and his son is named the same as one son of the other great-aunt, so I wonder if there is a family relationship. Perhaps they are cousins? I plan to see if I can write and share family information if they are willing. It really is difficult to find our wonderful women ancestors, even with electronic marvels, hard work, serendipity, and, yes, even when they want to share their lives with their family members. And I know that my great-aunts want their stories known to those who will treasure them and be gentle with them.

The search engines and articles listed on the Related Web Pages will give you the boost you need to fast-track your search with today's technology. The sites have instructions and how to use them is pretty self-evident. But you may not want to use a computer. That's fine also. Feel free to explore the neat ideas on researching your elusive, female ancestor that you will find within the covers of the Recommended Books This Month. You don't have to use a software program to record your own genealogy. You can write it in a letter to your children like my grandmother did. You can keep hand-printed family group sheets and pedigree charts. People have done that for years.

Or you may feel more comfortable writing your own history in a diary, like my wonderful mother-in-law did. Every year she opened a fat, red book with blank pages and began to write her stories and those of the rest of the family. She kept newspaper clippings between the pages. In one diary we found a clipping of Dr. Jesse, possibly in the Wildman line, who founded a medical clinic in the early 1900's, most unusual for a woman of that time. I think Mimi French, my mother-in-law, inherited Dr. Jesse's courage and sense of adventure. She pestered her father for several years until he eventually gave in and let her hitch a ride in one of the early open bi-planes at Curtiss Flying School next door in Pleasant Valley, New York. Of course, it helped that she and the family knew Glenn Curtiss well and that she had first met him when he was climbing out from under the boarding house next door after fixing the doorbell. These are the kinds of stories we find in our female ancestors' journals that not only provide genealogical information about them, but give us hope and courage to hold true to the standards they set, their dreams, and...just maybe, the inner core of being that we find in them and deep within ourselves. Isn't that why our female ancestors call to us?

Related Books

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by Sharon Debartolo Carmack
This book is written by a master genealogist who also wrote "The Genealogy Sourcebook", which is considered the family Bible to genealogical research. Both books are available from

by Christina Kassabian Schaefer
By law and by custom women's individual identities have been subsumed by those of their husbands. For centuries women were not allowed to own real estate in their own name, sign a deed, devise a will, or enter into contracts, and even their citizenship and their position as head of household have been in doubt. Finding women in traditional genealogical record sources, therefore, presents the researcher with a unique challenge, for census records, wills, land records, pension records--the conventional sources of genealogical identification--all have to be viewed in a different perspective if we are to establish the genealogical identity of our female ancestors.

Whether listed under their maiden names, married names, patronymic/matronymic surnames or some other permutation, or hidden under such terms as "Mrs.," "Mistress," "goodwife," "wife of," or even "daughter of," it is clear that women are hard to find. But while women may never be as easy to locate as their male counterparts, Christina Schaefer here pioneers an approach to the problem that just might set genealogy on its head! And her solution is simplicity itself: Look closely at those areas where the female ancestor interacts with the government and the legal system, she advises, where law, precedent, and even custom mandate the unequivocal identification of all parties, male and female. According to this thesis, the legal status of women at any point in time is the key to unraveling the identity of the female ancestor, and therefore this work highlights those laws, both federal and state, that indicate when a woman could own real estate in her own name, devise a will, enter into contracts, and so on. The first part of the book--a lengthy and informative introduction--deals with the special ways women are dealt with in federal records such as immigration records, passports, naturalization records, census enumerations, land records, military records, and records dealing with minorities. All such records are discussed with reference to their impact on women, as are a group of miscellaneous, non-governmental records, including newspapers, cemetery records, city directories, church records, and state laws covering common law marriages and marriage and divorce registration.

The bulk of this absorbing new reference work, however, deals with the individual states, showing how their laws, records, and resources can be used in determining female identity. Each state section begins with a time line of events, i.e. important dates in the state's history, following which is a detailed listing of eight key categories of information: (1) Marriage and Divorce (marriage and divorce laws and where to find marriage and divorce records); (2) Property and Inheritance (women's legal status in a state as reflected in statute law, code, and legislative acts); (3) Suffrage (information as to when any voting rights were granted prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920); (4) Citizenship (dates when residents of an area became U.S. citizens); (5) Census Information (special notes on searching federal, state, and territorial enumerations); (6) Other (information on welfare, pensions, and other laws affecting women); (7) Bibliography (books and articles relating to women in the state, historical and biographical sources, and publications regarding legal history and jurisprudence); and (8) Selected Resources for Women's History (addresses of state archives, historical societies, and libraries; women's studies programs, women's history programs, and more). This engrossing new work is as amazing as it is informative: amazing because it shows how women have been written out of genealogical history; informative because it demonstrates how their identities can be recovered. This is a new and promising path in genealogy, suggesting fruitful avenues of research and many new possibilities.

The author, Christina Kassabian Schaefer , stated, " My motivation for writing this book comes directly from my own family research. There were too many women in my family tree whom I knew only by a first name. I found that by studying the laws of property and inheritance I increased the chances of being able to complete a woman's identity. This theory is greatly expanded in The Hidden Half, suggesting dozens of places to search for female ancestors."

by Penny Colman
"Girls from all walks of life and from all regions of America are represented in Penny Colman's glorious celebration of the resilience of girls throughout history. One story after another--unearthed in diaries, memoirs, letters, photographs, household manuals, popular magazines--reveals everyday experiences of girls. In 1704 a group of French soldiers and Abenaki warriors raided a Massachusetts settlement, killing many and taking 7-year-old Eunice Williams prisoner. Eunice ended up being adopted by a family of Roman Catholic Iroquois, and she chose to continue living her life as a member of this culture, dressing in blankets and living in a wigwam. In the 1940s, Drew Gilpin Faust's mother often said, "It's a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you'll be." Drew refused to bow to gender pressure, and joined the 4-H club, not to sew and can like the other girls, but to raise sheep and cattle with the boys.

Girls such as Eunice and Drew have much to offer today's generation of girls. Their compelling stories and the accompanying photos and illustrations offer a running commentary on American girlhood, from the Ice Age to the present. Sections on slavery, crippling fashion trends (such as tight corsets and huge hoop skirts), and the working world provide a context for understanding the wide range of perspectives represented. This illuminating book will empower and inspire girls ages 9 to 99. (Ages 9 and older) --Emilie Coulter", Editorial Review

I don't know whether this book is classified as history or genealogy, and sometimes I don't think that the difference matters very much because the sources quoted in this book should give fine examples of how similar sources can be used successfully in your personal genealogical research. So just sit back, enjoy the book, and learn how to do genealogy from reading a fun history book!

by Lois Stanley, George F. Wilson, Maryhelen Wilson
These three authors have collaborated on a number of genealogical books relating to topics in Missouri. You can find them by clicking on this URL, then selecting any of their names in the left border of the page. Or you can select this link.

by Helen F. Evans
Helen F. Evans has written several books extracting records of women from colonial newspapers through 1800.

by Henry Z Jones
Henry Z Jones, Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, talks about the interesting and unexplained things that "just seem" to happen when we are doing genealogy work. We find an old trunk full of letters in an attic that we have explored before. We give directions to someone in the park who turns out to be a umpteenth cousin who has records for part of our ancestral line. We pull off the side of the road for a picnic and find a graveyard with our family names on the tombstones. That sort of thing gives me goose-bumps, but I'll take all the help I can get in my genealogy work.

Related Web Pages

This site allows you to search through six massive U.S. databases. Additionally, it gives you choices to search interment cemetery records, obituary records, national death records, public records and more. Plus it’s free!

Stuck with just a first name or a middle name? Do you have just a maiden name but not the married name? Or is it the reverse--you have just a name, and you don’t know if this female ancestor is a spinster or a spouse? Is the only name you have an unusual first name? Are you using a middle name for your search? You might find it already posted on this site. If not, post it on the bulletin boards. Only a few keystrokes might net you a big find on this unusual search site.

The Obituary Daily Times is a daily index of published obituaries. It has approximately 1500 to over 2000 entries a day and the search engine is free.

GeneaSearch has created a bulletin board for lost female ancestors and also one for adoption queries.

In her article, Ms. Clifford states that the marriage certificate plus the application for the marriage license could contain much information for the genealogist, such as names, dates and birth places for bride and groom, relatives, religious affiliation, etc. She also gives excellent advice on how to find various printed and electronic sources which could yield the elusive marriage date.

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