I have been researching my family's history for over 20 years, as well as occasionally assisting others in their ancestry research.
A Common Problem
One of the most exasperating aspects of researching your roots can be tracing the maternal lines in your family tree. Anyone who has attempted to discover their heritage has probably encountered this scenario: your research is going well, and you have found information that has added several generations to your family chart. Suddenly, you smack your head on a stone wall I call "Miss Unknown", and no matter what you do, you cannot get great-grandma to hand over her maiden name. Maybe, on the other hand, you have her maiden name, but you cannot determine who her parents were. I myself have run into these problems on several occasions. I have discovered, however, that with a little bit of strategy and a great deal of persistence, you can overcome the barriers that hold back the information you need to build the maternal lines of your tree.
When Marriage Records Do Not Exist
Marriage records—whether they be civil or church records—can offer extremely important pieces of family information, especially when they list the bride's father and/or mother. Yet, when they are non-existent for various reasons, it can suddenly make finding your female ancestor's maiden name much more difficult. This difficulty can also be compounded by the fact that available records, in general, become more scarce as you search further back in history.
The first thing to do when you find yourself without a marriage record is to look at all the information you do have about the person. There are often many clues hidden within the information that was recorded after a woman's marriage. If your ancestor was married after 1851, examine census records to see where she was born and the approximate year *. This data can take you back to the state and census year(s) when she would have been present in her parents' household.
The next step is to search for girls with her first name and the correct age within the appropriate state. (This is much easier to do when you have access to a searchable online database!) If her birth state is different from the state where she was married, then try to find her at her youngest age first, as it will be more likely that she was still living in her birth state at that time. Write down all of the possible matches, along with the names and ages of the rest of the family members. Then search the census year where she first appears married to your grandfather to see if any of those same families you found earlier were present in the vicinity. The closer their marriage year was to that census, the more likely her family would still be located in the area.
Do not immediately discount a candidate just because her family didn't live nearby, however, since people did move, and sometimes frequently! It is normally necessary to have a second source outside of the census to confirm a guess in this case. (Note: watch out for ancestors using nicknames or middle names. I had an ancestor that went by her middle name as an adult, but I did not realize this was the case until I discovered earlier census records listing her by her first name instead. Not knowing the person's first name and middle name can trip you up easily when searching for records.)
Another way to find a maiden name is to look at census records to see if your ancestor's mother, father, brothers, or unmarried sisters lived with her. The fact that they are related will not be stated on censuses from 1870 or earlier, but you can track backward in the same way mentioned in the previous paragraph to see if they are indeed related. Sometimes a newly wedded couple would live in the same household as the bride or groom's parents for a time. If they were living with the bride's parents during a census year, you may find an answer that way as well.
Death certificates, especially those from 1900 onward, can prove to be invaluable sources of information. Looking at the death certificates of a female ancestor's children can often lead you to her maiden name. Details such as place of birth and the names of the person's parents are typically recorded on these documents as well. Occasionally, however, you will find the space for the deceased's parents' names filled in with the irritating words "don't know" or "unknown". Do not let those words immediately deter you from continuing to examine death records for clues. If you know the names and years/places of death for any of your ancestor's siblings, try taking a look at their death certificates. You have a good chance of finding the information that way, especially if your ancestor had several siblings, as more siblings equal a greater likelihood of finding what you need to know.
Wills also provide a source of information, though they are better for confirming a suspected parent. Be sure to have specific potential parents in mind before searching for a will, as well as the knowledge of exactly where they died. You could spend hours wasting your time looking for a will in the wrong area if you incorrectly assume the parents lived in the same region as their children at the time of their death. That said, if you have some good hunches, a will can often tell you whether you are correct. This can be via the daughter being mentioned by her married name (which is still not total confirmation, however, if the surname was common in the region), or, better yet, her husband or one or more of her children being mentioned in the will.
Court records, deeds, obituaries, family Bible records, and even personal correspondence from the person in question can also confirm or debunk potential matches. As in the case with the wills, it is always best to do targeted research on these things in order to conserve your time.
(*Note: I am referring strictly to American records in this article. Records from other countries may contain different information during the same time periods mentioned. Many of the basic research concepts presented here will remain the same, though, regardless of which country from which you are acquiring your records.)
Clues Hidden in Plain Sight
One unconventional way that clues to a woman's maiden can be discovered is through the names of her own children. In the past, it was very common for people to name their children after their own parents and siblings. This included using family surnames as well as first names.
For example, say there is a Polly Morris that marries a Tom Carter, but you have no marriage record that actually tells you Polly's maiden name. They have a daughter, however, whom they christen "Polly Morris Carter". Now, one look at that middle name will tell you that it is not exactly a feminine name, and therefore may very well be the surname of the mother or a grandparent. A little digging backward in time may generate a record for you that shows a child named Polly Morris living in that same area ten years before who is the right age to be the Polly that later married Tom. Say Polly and Tom also had a son, whom they named "Robert Morris Carter". Looking at the census records for that Polly Morris you found as a child shows that the father's name was Robert. At this point, I'd say you have a very good chance of a match, especially if other details such as place of birth match for both Polly's.
This trick can also work on grandmother's maiden names. Going back to Polly, say you have now found her father Robert's parents. You know they are George and Sally Morris, but you cannot find Sally's original surname. None of her children seem to have first or middle names that sound like surnames. Yet one of her grandchildren, Polly (Morris) Carter, has the odd middle name "Bowen". This middle name also shows up with one of Polly's children and is used by two of Polly's siblings for their children as well. This is a possible hint as to grandma Sally's maiden name and should be explored as such.
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Utilizing the Research Done by Others
There are times in the world of online ancestry research that one comes across a family tree another researcher has posted that answers many frustrating questions in one stroke. This is certainly true in the case of researching maternal family lines, so do not be afraid to utilize the work of others. Sometimes people have access to records held locally, a family Bible, etc. that gives them an easy answer to a surname question that would take you years to uncover. However, make sure that the person has sound documentation regarding the information they are sharing. If they do not, take the information they have shared and file it under "maybe". It may yet lead you to verifiable answers in the end. For example, there have been occasions when I have found an ancestress listed as the daughter of a particular couple in someone else's family tree, but the other researcher had no means of proving that family link. Further research on my part showed the information to be inaccurate, but, in the process of examining that possible link, I discovered the real parents. In such cases, the actual father was usually a brother, uncle, or nephew of the incorrectly-listed father.
In summary, always check things out before discarding undocumented information in a tree, unless you know immediately by other inaccuracies in the tree that the information is most likely incorrect (such as the daughter being listed with a date of birth only ten years later than the supposed father's, and it is not a typo).
Another thing I would note in regard to family trees online: just because a tree does not list your ancestress as a daughter of people you suspect to be her parents does not mean she is not their daughter. Sometimes people have gaps in the information they have collected concerning a particular family. I myself have not always attempted to hunt down the names of all of my ancestors' siblings. Thus, the omission of a name does not immediately disprove a theory. Examine everything you can find about that family before concluding that they are not a match. If, however, a person provides documentation with their tree proving that all the children they have listed are all the progeny a couple had, then take their word on it and keep hunting elsewhere.
Persistence is Key
Maternal line research can be frustrating, but if you are willing to dedicate some time and effort, you can usually find the answer in the case of a missing maiden name. Think creatively, explore all possible matches, learn about the region in which your ancestor lived, and have fun while researching. You may be surprised in the end who great-grandma is hiding behind her hoop skirt. Some of my most interesting ancestral finds have been through my maternal lines.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Rhosynwen (author) on August 27, 2017:
@ Dianne H: Yes, an obituary is another place to check for a maiden name. Thanks for pointing that out! :)
Dianne H on August 27, 2017:
Dont forget to search for an obit. I finally confirmed my gg grandmothers maiden name through her obit which listed a brother that was still living in another state. I had been trying to find her maiden name for over 10 years and there it was in her obit!
Robert Remy from Eagle River, Alaska on August 19, 2017:
I traced what I believe to be migration routes for my mom and dad from just mere Amcestry DNA results. Its on my blog and it relates to your article. You may enjoy.
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on June 01, 2016:
You have some very good advice here, and I’m glad I stumbled onto this hub. DNA tests can sometimes provide the answer. We hit a similar stone wall in my mother’s family. We had all the information going back to her namesake’s progenitor’s wife in Philly before the Revolutionary war. We had the progenitor’s son and his wife who moved to the Ozarks in 1814, but the next generation had no last name for the wives of two brothers, one my great great grandfather, but then we had all the names thereafter. Of course, you know that all the rural courthouses of the early 1800s were built of wood and burned down (LOL). We simply could not find this one skipped generation.
We looked in all the places that you suggested, including Ancestry. We wrote, called or emailed collateral cousins to no avail. What we found was a woman who appeared to have had two names, Emmeline and Elmina. She was Emmeline on the 1850 Census and Elmina on the others thereafter, no last name because she was in her husband’s household. She died as Elmina Married. We had no Emmeline Single or Elmina Single. There was even a land record of Elmina Married selling off part of the family property.
Finally, like a blind hog rooting up an acorn, my cousin found a woman who claimed that our ancestor’s real name was Emmeline McSingle, from a Scottish family. I didn’t believe it because I thought she was a Cherokee Old Settler who had abandoned her native name. Turns out I was wrong. The cousin previously had an autosomnal DNA test run a couple of years before and she was DNA linked to this family and Emmeline McSingle. So sometimes a DNA test can be the proof one needs to find this link.
Rhosynwen (author) on April 30, 2012:
Thanks to you all. Ancestry research is in large part picking through all the possibilities to find a match. Finding that match might be years in coming, but it is always rewarding when you finally do discover it.
Shasta Matova from USA on April 29, 2012:
This is great information Rhosynwen. So far, the few times I tried to confirm possibilities, I was only able to confirm that they were not accurate. Which I guess is a good thing - at least I know to rule that one out. I do need to find logical suspects and rule them out as well, but I would then still wonder if I really got the right family.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 29, 2012:
This is an excellent article about searching for women's maiden names as it does often get difficult if you are looking before 1850. I have been doing genealogy research on my family for over 20 years with many successes and many hours of searching records and coming up empty. Voted up and useful.
Carol from Greenwood, B.C., Canada on April 29, 2012:
I loved this Hub! As an amateur genealogist I have had the very same problems you write about. Thanks for the tips! Voted up and useful.
Rhosynwen (author) on July 05, 2011:
I hope it does help you! I have learned a lot by trial and error while doing ancestry research over the years, and I thought I'd help others save some time by sharing some tactics that have worked for me.
Dee Sharp from East Texas on July 04, 2011:
Great blog, thank you for the information. I have been researching my ancestry for over two years now, and have found those exact problems. Hope this helps!