Women at an Indianpolis Cotton Mill, August 1908. Image via Library of Congress, LOT 7479, v. 1, no. 0009

As you may know, March is Women’s History Month. Therefore I thought it would be appropriate to revisit the topic of our female ancestors.

One of the most frustrating parts of researching female family lines is not knowing a woman’s maiden name. Too often the women of a family are listed in local histories, newspapers, and other documents as “Mrs. Tom Smith” or “Mary ——-” without any mention of who they were prior to their marriage. When we hit a “brick wall” like this, it may be tempting to give up on that particular line and pursue other research interests. However, in doing so we are losing a valuable piece to our genealogical puzzle.

Instead of giving up, we must dig deeper. It can be difficult to overcome this kind of obstacle, but it is rarely impossible. To help get you started, here is a list of possible sources to check.

#1 The birth certificate of a child

As I mentioned in a previous post, birth records often contain the maiden name of the mother. It would likely be most useful to obtain the birth certificate for the child who is your direct ancestor. However, if there is no record available for that individual, or if the record for that child is lacking the maiden name, don’t forget to check certificates for her other children. Growing your family tree might be as simple as obtaining this original record.

#2 Their marriage record

Again, the marriage application and/or  license will likely contain the woman’s maiden name. You can learn more about obtaining the couple’s marriage record in this previous post.

Damenverein Group and Individual Portraits, 1884. Image via IUPUI's Athenaeum Damenverein & Women's Auxiliary Image Collection

Damenverein Group and Individual Portraits, 1884. Image via IUPUI’s Athenaeum Damenverein & Women’s Auxiliary Image Collection

#3 Her death certificate

Most death records include a spot for the name of the deceased’s parents. Unfortunately, this information is not always complete. The veracity and depth of information provided depends on the knowledge of the person who filled in the form. Still it is certainly worth a try. Even if the information is not entirely accurate, it may provide you with enough of a clue to move forward with your research. You can learn more about obtaining a death record in this previous post.

#4 The newspaper

All of the sources above often have their counterparts published in newspapers. Birth announcements may list the grandparents of the child, which would reveal the mother’s maiden name. Marriage or engagement announcements would certainly provide the maiden name of the bride. Obituaries often list the deceased parents or may include the names of other relatives that would provide clues as to the woman’s maiden name. The name your searching for is out there somewhere, it just takes some digging. You can learn more about what newspapers are available and how to access them in this previous post.

#5 The cemetery

Tombstone inscriptions often contain information about the person’s family. Also, pay attention to who is buried nearby. Finding a person with a name you’ve suspected to be your ancestor’s maiden name might be enough to confirm your suspicion. And don’t forget to look for any records available related to the purchase of the cemetery plot. You may find the information you need in the cemetery’s archives. Find out how to access this information in this previous post.

#6 Probate records

Wills don’t always state relationships explicitly, but if your ancestor or her husband is included in a list of heirs, it is likely that they are somehow related to the deceased. Discovering the precise relationship may take a bit of sleuthing, but once again, it may provide you with the clue you need to solve your mystery. And again, you can learn more about probate records in this previous post.


One final tip for discovering your ancestor’s maiden name is to be aware of the laws in place during her lifetime. Federal, state, and local laws all impact her rights and therefore may determine where and how she will be listed in official documents.

I hope this inspires you to keep searching for your female ancestors. Their stories are out there just waiting for you to discover them!

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