Finding Your Female Ancestors

We wouldn’t have a family without them but when building your family tree you’ll quickly discover a roadblock.

Where are the women?

Tracing your female ancestors can be frustrating because it’s challenging to find maiden names. Historically women didn't appear in many records because they took on their husband's surname at marriage. Also, they didn't have the same legal rights as men and thus didn't generate as many records.

Locating maiden names is essential to growing your family tree and finding the stories of our female ancestors. Sadly, our female ancestors become virtually invisible the further you research back in time.

But don’t despair! You can find those maiden names if you know where to look. Here are 9 places to find details about your female ancestors and their maiden names.

Family Records at Home

While our female ancestors historically didn’t appear in many public records, their names and details about their lives frequently appear in private records found at home. The family cookbook, diaries, and letters can provide a lot of details about their lives.

Have a scavenger hunt for these home sources and ask your relatives to check their attics and basements. As you examine these documents, take notes on names found and possible name changes through marriage.

  • Family charts and trees
  • Family bibles
  • Family trees & pedigree charts
  • Letters and diaries
  • Cookbooks, recipe books
  • Personal papers
  • Backs of photos
  • School records

Marriage Records

Marriage applications, licenses, and banns contain information such as the date and location of the marriage, maiden names, parents’ names, places of birth, occupations, and more.  If a maiden name isn't noted, look at the witnesses. They could potentially be her family.

You can find some of these records online or contact the local county and town clerk's office where the marriage took place. If your ancestor was married multiple times, look for all the marriage records. For more information on marriage records, see my blog post “Why I love Marriage Records and You Should Too!

Birth Records

Birth records and birth indexes often contain the mother’s maiden name. Search for the birth records of all her children and cross-reference. You can find birth records and indexes online at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org , and by contacting the county where the birth took place.

Obituaries

Because obituaries tell the story of someone’s life, they often contain maiden names and important details about our female ancestors. They can include the names of her parents, siblings, husband(s), children, place of birth, locations lived, occupations, achievements, and more.

If her maiden name isn’t explicitly mentioned, note any siblings or parents that are mentioned. Their surname likely could be her maiden name. 

Death Certificates

Death certificates might include her father’s name (her maiden surname) as well as her mother’s maiden surname. Also, look at the death certificates of her children for her maiden name.

Remember, the information provided is only as reliable as the informant giving it. Consider it a clue for further research and cross-reference it with other information to confirm.

Newspapers

Search the local newspapers around the time of your female ancestor’s marriage using her husband’s name. You might find an engagement or wedding announcement containing the maiden name of the bride. Read the entire article for clues to her family. You might find siblings or cousins in the bridal party. And, you might be lucky enough to discover a photo of your female ancestor accompanying the announcement.

You can search newspapers online at Newspapers.com, Genealogybank.com, and by going directly to the newspaper’s website. Also, check local libraries and historical societies.

Census

Using your female ancestor’s married last name, you will find her in census records living with her husband as head-of-household. Examine all her census records, looking closely for other household members with different surnames. They could be her brothers, sisters, a mother, or a widowed father.


The 1900 and 1910 census asked respondents the number of years they were married, the number of children born, and how many children still alive. These can be clues to identify when and where to search for her marriage records and birth records, both of which might have her maiden name.

Immigration Records

Finding maiden names in immigration records means first finding the husband’s immigration records first. If they were married when they immigrated or applied for citizenship, you will find the wife’s maiden name on the naturalization papers.

If your female ancestors are Italian, like mine, they are listed by their maiden name on ship manifests. While researching my great-grandfather, I found him traveling as a small boy with his mother, my 2x great-grandmother, who was traveling under her maiden name. Using that information, I was able to locate her crossing the Atlantic an additional eight times, confirming the family legend that she did so in order to get all her family here in America. 

For more tips on researching names, check out my quick reference book  The Name Game. The facts and tips gathered in this quick little reference guide include everything you need to know about given names and surnames to start making more family history discoveries today.

Every Family Has a Story. Ready to Discover Yours?

Subscribe to my newsletter for tips, exclusive content, and special offers.

Close

50% Complete

Let's Stay in Touch

Sign-up for our newsletter and get research tips, exclusive content, and special offers direct to your inbox.