Finding Women in your Family Tree


Do you have a pedigree that names your female ancestors as Mary, Rachel or Phebe…no last names or even worse…UNKNOWN?

Prior to the 20th century, many women didn’t have an identity of their own. They were tangled with their father or husband and in some places, were not allowed to own real estate in their own name or to sign legal documents. When they married their name changed, sometimes multiple times, which makes them harder to find and so they get listed in genealogies by their given name and an approximate date of birth and death. But it was the women who bore the children, ran the households and possibly even the farms; and it was the women who carried on the family traditions. If you’re looking for a family bible it was likely passed down to a daughter. Women have been referred to as our “invisible ancestors.” To find them you need to put them in context with the roles they played during their lives; daughter, wife, mother, widow, friend, neighbor.

Since our research methodology is to begin with ourselves and work back, you usually find women first as a wife, widow or mother when they’ve already assumed their husband’s name. Survey the existing literature, family histories and Family Trees published both online and off for hints. If the time frame is 1850 or after in the US, you may find this woman in the census where you get a given name and an approximate date of birth, so it’s logical to begin looking for a marriage record. If you’ve worked back and found her in each census in which she was living, you can probably determine an approximate date of marriage from the birth dates of the children. Find the oldest child and begin searching for the marriage back from that point. Depending on the year, you would then attempt to find her living in the household of her parents. Just continue the process. Make certain you find the marriage records for each of her children, as frequently the mother's name is on the record, or on a death record.

In Ireland, since we don’t have 19th century census records, it’s important to do all of the collateral research, identifying siblings and those sponsors and witnesses to baptisms and marriages. Was your female ancestor born after civil registration when there is information provided about parents? If she was born before civil registration try to find her marriage record after 1864 and then at least you'll have the name of her father. You can then go back to the church records to see if you can match her to a baptism in the correct time and place with the correct name of her father.

I frequently am contacted by people who are only interested in searching the male lines. In my opinion, that’s a mistake! (I might be a bit biased on that point.) If you’ve done an autosomal DNA test, you are likely to have a large list of “cousins” and if your experience is similar to mine initially you’re probably thinking, “who are these people?” I have three daughters; I’m the middle of three girls; my mother was the middle of three girls, and my grandmother was the youngest of three girls. Here’s a list of descendant surnames (that I am aware of so far) on my maternal line; my mother’s mother’s mother and their descendants:

There are other names I haven’t found yet, especially as the next generation marries…the good news is that more women are keeping their maiden name even after their marriage. That is the case with my daughter. The names above are only from my 2x great grandmother, but multiply that by the generations you've researched and that is huge. These could be the names of the “cousins” that appear in my match list on the various DNA site. These are just the A-M names that appear in my database.

As beginner genealogists we are taught to begin with ourselves and work back, generation by generation making all of the correct connections…ancestral research. But as genetic genealogists we need to be thinking descendent research, finding all of the individuals descended from our ancestors (a great tip from Diahan Southard - I've learned so much from her). One of those individuals might have the answer to our brick wall. Just this past weekend, I was contacted by two individuals of different lines of the family that provided information on my brick walls...one through a DNA match and the other through my blog. In both cases I had many of their family members already in my database but they were able to fill in some of those descendant names.

I decided to take a look at my database for those individuals with no surnames. Many have come from census records or obituaries where the surname was not given. I selected the first name in my database without a surname…it was Alice B. I clicked on her name and she was the wife of Thomas Hannity and according to the 1910 census was born in Kansas. Thomas was the son of Edward Hannity who was in my database because his brother, Patrick married Mary King, my husband’s great aunt (did you follow all of that?) So could I identify Alice B’s maiden name? I checked out the hints at Ancestry for Thomas and pulled up the FindAGrave hint. There was Thomas and Alice B. Clancy Hannity. Now there is one less unnamed woman in my Family Tree. The FindAGrave site also provided her parents, siblings and children’s names down to the most recent death in April 2021. As usual, this took me down the rabbit hole and a few hours later, I had added multiple Hannitys, Wards and Mulhollands to my database, taking me back a few generations and it looks like it’s possible that these families were all related back 2 - 3 generations.


Women are important in your family tree...don't ignore them. They may provide the key to identifying those "cousins" on your DNA list who may in turn, give you the name of your unidentified common ancestor.


Happy Hunting and Stay Safe!

I'll be doing two lectures for the San Diego Genealogical Society on Saturday, September 11th. The first is on Strategies for Researching your English Ancestors and the second is Irish Civil and Church Records. If you've lost some of your Irish, consider that they might have migrated to England.



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