Ways to Uncover the Maternal Lines in Your Family Tree
A Common Problem
One of the most aggravating 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 whom her parents were. I myself have run into these problems on several occasions. Thankfully, 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 are wonderful bits of information, especially when they list the bride's father and/or mother. Whether they are civil or church records, they offer extremely important pieces of information. So, when they are non-existent for various reasons, it suddenly makes finding your female ancestor's maiden name much more difficult. The further back she appears in your line also adds to this difficulty, since available records become more scarce as you go 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 recorded after a woman's marriage. If you ancestor was married after 1851, examine census records to see where she was born and the approximate year. This can take you back to the state and census year(s) when she would appear in her parent's 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. Now search the census year where she first appears married to your grandfather to see if any of those same families you found earlier are present in the vicinity. The closer their marriage year is to that census, the more likely her family will still be located in the area. Do not immediately discount a candidate just because her family doesn't live nearby, however, since people do move! It is normally necessary to have a second source outside of the census to confirm a guess in this case. (Side note: watch out for ancestors using nicknames and 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 showing her under 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 backwards 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. 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, however. 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 (more siblings equals 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. Have specific potential parents in mind before searching for a will, and know exactly where the person 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 a targeted research of these things in order to conserve your time.
One other 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 backwards 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.
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 share and file it under "maybe". It may still give you a lead. There have been occasions when I have found my ancestress listed as the daughter of a particular couple in someone's family tree, but they have no means of proving that link. Further research on my part shows the information to be inaccurate, but, in the process of examining that possible link, I have discovered the real parents. In that case it is usually a brother, uncle or nephew of the incorrect father. So, always check things out before discarding undocumented information in a tree (unless you know immediately by other inaccuracies in the tree that it is 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 is the fact that just because a family tree does not list your ancestress as a daughter of people you suspect to be her parents, it 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 and keep hunting elsewhere.
This aspect of ancestry research can be frustrating, but if you are willing to dedicate some time and effort, you can usually find the answer to the maiden name question. 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 whom 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.