My great-granmother, Anna Buttchen, and her sister, Lizzie.
As family historians, we often focus on our male relatives. After all, they are the ones who give us our surnames, and they are often much easier to locate in records. However, by focusing on the males in our lineage we are neglecting 50% of our ancestry. We are as much the product of the women in our families as we are of the men.
Researching our female ancestors does come with a unique set of challenges. Often we are able to find nothing more than a first name. Even with a maiden name, we may struggle to find any further information about her life prior to marriage. It can be difficult and frustrating. But it is not impossible.
To help get you started, here are a few tips for learning more about your female ancestors.
#1 Use her own words
Finding a diary or journal written by a female ancestor is the holy grail of genealogical research. Not everyone is lucky enough to find one, but there are more out there than you might think. Your ancestor may also have written letters or kept a family Bible. All of these documents will give you insight into what her life was like and what was important to her.
To find these elusive items, start by asking other family members if they have or know of any. You can also contact the historical society or library in the area where your ancestor lived, or search their online catalog if one is available. Unfortunately family papers often end up far from where they originated. To see if your ancestor’s papers might be located elsewhere, you can try searching the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), an online catalog of family papers and other manuscripts held at institutions across the country.
Another excellent resource is the Periodical Source Index (PERSI). If your ancestor’s letters or her family Bible has been published, then you’ll likely find them mentioned here. PERSI is available through both Ancestry.com and HeritageQuestOnline.com (both require an account, but are available for free at many libraries).
#2 Consult her friends and neighbors
If you’re unable to find any documents written in her own hand, you may find information about her in the journals, diaries, and letters of those she associated with. Women typically spent a lot of time with other women who lived in the same area or perhaps attended the same church. You can use city directories or census records to determine who your ancestor may have associated with, then conduct the same searches for documents written by those individuals.
#3 Glean clues from your heirlooms
If you or someone in your family has a quilt or sampler, jewelry or silver, a cookbook, an autograph album, a doll, or just about any other heirloom that has been passed down through the generations, then you may be able to glean clues about your ancestor from those items. By consulting an expert or doing some intensive research on your own, you may find that your heirlooms can tell you where your ancestor may have lived or grown up, what her social status may have been, whether or not she attended school and where, and any number of other tidbits of information that may be hiding beneath the surface.
#4 Think about the roles she played
Your female ancestor may have been a wife, a mother, a daughter, a niece, an aunt, a widow, a grandmother, and a granddaughter, and in each of those roles she may have left a paper trail that will give you clues about her life. To find that information you must look at the records for those people in her life for whom she played each role. For instance, she may be listed in the will of her father. Or she may be listed in the veteran’s pension file under the name of her husband. She may even be found later in life living with a child or grandchild in the census. To find all that you can about her life, you must find all that you can about the lives of those around her.
#5 Leave no stone unturned
We often make assumptions about the past. We are often wrong. We may think that our ancestor could not possibly be found in divorce records, since she remained married. However, many petitions for divorce were never granted. By neglecting to search these records we may be missing out on valuable information about her life. The same can be said for military records. Many women served as camp followers during both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. They were cooks, seamstresses, nurses, and in rare cases, disguised soldiers. And while you may cringe at the thought, insane asylum records should never be overlooked. Women were institutionalized for a plethora of reasons, some legitimate, others not so much. Asylum records can provide an incredible amount of information for those who were held there. The bottom line? You never know where your ancestor may turn up, so be exhaustive in your search.