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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.

My grandmother’s autograph book, and an entry written by her sister

#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.

8 responses to “Family Tree: Our Female Ancestors”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    Will stay with this one!

  2. Norm Morford says:

    Thankls, Krystal. One of my best items from a previous generation is the life story of my mother’s mother which she wrote at my request. She lost her father early in life and then her mother, so she and her brother Robert Cox of the Lebanon area had no parents and were passed among other relatives for the remainder of her years until she married my grandfather Wal J. Horney, a farmer between Westfield and Sheridan. She was Carrie Eulon Cox Horney. I still know the site of the place where he went to court her — the old house is gone, but the trees that lined the lane now sit behind a new house.

    How do I get that info to the proper parties in Hamilton County?

  3. robert carey says:

    Excellent !…..rich heritage…important family dynamic! rc Fountain Square Historical Society

  4. Krystal Becker says:

    Hi Norm, I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

    Your grandmother’s story sounds very interesting, and how nice to have it written down for future generations! I’d be happy to help you pass it on in any way I can. Please contact me directly so I can get a bit more information. You can find my contact information on my website: http://www.KinshipGenealogy.com

    I look forward to hearing from you!

  5. Norm Morford says:

    Krystal — I’m not sure just who outside our family would like to read her autobiography. We named each of our now adult kids with a middle name that is a family name — in other words, our son has Horney for his middle name and he was even brave enough to allow it to be read out loud when he graduated from high school.

    Our second offspring, received Hollis for her middle name which was my wife’s mother’s maiden name.

    Our third offspring probably did the best since her middle name is Patterson which was my wife’s maiden name.

    Do you suppose that business about the names, as well as being at home alone with us for a couple of years, inclines her to be closer to us than the other two?

    And just in case you need their whole names for some data base:

    Robert Horney Morford of Longmont, CO an electronics engineer with Western Digital

    Janet Hollis Morford of Champaign, IL a social studies teacher at University H.S.

    Jill Patterson Morford of Albuquerque, NM a congnition prof. at Univ. of N.Mex.

    One other curious thing is that both of our daughters married men from other countries — Jan’s husband Jose Cheibub is from Brazil and teaches pol. sci. at U. of Illinois. Ze is now double citizen of the two countries and is in great demand as a lecturer in many places around the world. His specialty is democracies of central and so. America.

    and Jill’s husband is Joachim Oberst and teaches philosophy at Univ. of N, Mex. He is from Germany and will never take U.S. citizenship — they speak German at home all the time and the kids have all gone through Spanish immersion in school.

    But back to your original question, I would be happy for you to see my grandmother’s autobiography if it would be useful to you in some way. I can not imagine that folks outside our family would want to read it.

  6. Norm Morford says:

    Krystal — just noticed on your bio that you went to DePauw — what year were you? I graduated there in 1956 and had a history minor along with English minor, philosophy major.

  7. Stephanie Wilhelm says:

    Hello Krystal,
    I went to look for your website but it’s just a blank WordPress site. Are you still actively involved in genealogy?

  8. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Sadly, we have lost touch with Krystal, and heard she moved away. Her website hasn’t been functional for a few years, but we are still grateful for the contributions she made to H.I.

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