Female Ancestors: After the Marriage

Note: This article originally appeared in the Ancestry Daily News on 13 October 2004. Links to the articles referenced will be posted here in future blog entries.


Female ancestors present special research problems for two main reasons. A significant part of the difficulty stems from the fact that at the time of their marriage most American females changed their last name to that of their husband. Not knowing the last name makes for significant research difficulties.

Another significant problem in locating women is that for much of American history, women have not had the same legal rights as men. The result is that women are generally listed less often than men in many of the records utilized by genealogists.

Determining what happened to a woman after her marriage requires the genealogist to do more than simply look up names in indexes hoping something magically appears. It requires that the researcher learn about:
– Records of the time period.
– Common legal practices of the time, particularly those involving women’s rights and inheritances.
– History of the region during the time period.
– Factors effecting migration during the time period.



Women Were Treated Differently
For much of American history, women have had significantly fewer legal rights than men. Consequently the number of records mentioning women dwindles as a family history is researched into earlier and earlier time periods.

For much of American history, under a concept called coverture, a woman’s separate legal status ended upon her marriage. The married female typically could not own real property and derived her citizenship from that of her husband.

Today this is no longer true, but during the period where most of us have genealogical brick walls, it was. Keep in mind that most laws regarding a woman’s right to own property are governed by state statute and have changed over time, sometimes gradually over a period of years. Consequently what is true in one state at one point in time might not be true in another state at another time.

Half of our ancestors are women, and like everyone else, I have encountered these problems before. I’ve discussed some of them in previous columns:

“Married to An Alien”
This article focuses on women’s citizenship and uses a “native born alien” in the 1920 census as a starting point for the discussion.

The Reality of Sarah’s Realty
This article focuses on the real estate that was not owned by an eighteenth century Virginia widow.

“1856 Illinois Probate Guide: The Dower”
This article discusses the concept of dower and how it was handled in Illinois in the mid-nineteenth century with links to additional references.

Women have not always been treated equally in American history. Learning about the differences makes us better genealogists.

Determining Where She Went After Her Marriage
It can be challenging enough to find a mobile person whose name is known, let alone a married relative whose husband’s name is not known. Of course a thorough search of marriage records should be conducted in those areas where the missing female’s family is known to have lived using all reasonable spelling variants.

Let’s take a look at some examples of situations where records beyond the marriage record might contain the desired name:
– The missing female’s sibling died and the missing female survived. Does the sibling’s death notice or obituary provide the name of siblings? Does the funeral home have this information?
– The missing female was an informant on a relative’s death certificate after the missing female married. This long shot may pay off, particularly if the missing female remained near relatives.
– Did the missing female inherit from any estate (not just her parents) after her last name changed? If so, she should be listed with the new last name on those records.
– Was the estate of the missing female’s parents settled up after the name change? If so, later (or final) records in the probate may provide the new married last name.

What Is the Key Here?
The key is that we are not searching for the missing female when trying to locate these records. All the examples discussed can be located by searching for someone other than the missing female–someone whose surname is known. Ask yourself, “Is there a record for someone else that will list the missing female with her new last name–possibly as an heir, a sibling, or an informant?” Are there events that might have spurred the creation of a record naming the “missing female?” Are there records of these events that you can locate without knowing the missing female’s name?

In some records it will be clear who the missing female is (listed as a sister in an obituary, or as a niece in an estate settlement). In other records the relationship might not be given (an informant on a death certificate, a witness to a marriage, etc.). In these latter cases a “hunch” that the individual is the missing female will have to be confirmed with other records.

Is Your Missing Female Hiding near Other Relatives?
Locate your missing female’s parents and siblings in census records. Is there a married female in a nearby household with the same first name as your missing female? Is that female born in the same place as your missing female? If other sources fail, this neighbor is a candidate for your missing female and this neighbor should be researched to determine if she is the missing female or not.

Also look at all the gravestones near your missing female’s parents and siblings. Is there a grave with a burial whose first name is that of your missing female? Family members were frequently buried near each other and there is a chance that you have walked right by your missing female relative while looking at her parents’ or sibling’s stones.

Did She go With a Sibling or Another Family Member?
Thomas Chaney died in Bedford County, Pennsylvania in 1856 leaving a large family. Two children left Pennsylvania. Son Abraham was easy to track to Ohio, his last name never changed. What of daughter Elizabeth who “vanished” in Bedford County, Pennsylvania? She reappeared in Coshocton County, Ohio, the very same county where her brother settled.

In most cases, a female who heads west in the early nineteenth century didn’t strike out entirely on her own. Chances are she has a brother, uncle, or other relative or neighbor who has gone west before her or at the same time. The problem is finding out who that relative is and where they went. For this reason another approach to locating missing females is to completely research their other family members in hopes that this will also locate the missing female relative.

Sum It Up

Locating missing female relatives is not always easy. Some useful approaches are:
– Consider all the records that might list the female with her new last name.
– Consider that the female might have moved to live near other family members or former neighbors.
– Consider that the missing female might be hiding right under your nose near her family–only with a different last name.


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