Uncover every clue in the hunt for the female members of your family, with Rachel Bellerby of Family Tree magazine’s guide to the top resources for finding the women in your family tree.
Whilst it can be tempting to begin your family tree search by following your surname through the generations, if you fail to research your maternal line you’re missing out on a huge section of your ancestry.
Find the women within your family tree with our guide to the top resources for finding female ancestors.
1. Marriage certificates
The number one resource for taking your family tree back a generation, since a bride’s maiden name (and often the name of her father also) will be listed on the certificate of marriage, allowing you to search for that person’s birth record and thus the names of the parents. Remember also that a person listed as witness to a wedding might be a family members such as a sibling or cousin, perhaps pointing you in the direction of a maiden name.
2. Historical newspapers
Remember that 19th-century newspapers often identified individuals by a surname and initial only, so a search for an ancestor’s full name may not yield the full results. Notices of marriages, births & deaths, obituaries and engagement announcements can all give clues to help with your research.
3. The census
A valuable resource for tracing female ancestors through from childhood, to marriage and sometimes on to widowhood. Look for clues from the names of relatives staying with an ancestor who aren’t part of that nuclear family, since elderly mothers sometimes lives with their children, or young single women would lodge with family members.
4. Parish records
When searching for a female ancestor before civil registration be sure to check birth records for each of that person’s children since birth certificates sometimes include the mother’s maiden name, which could point you in the direction of her marriage and/or baptism record.
5. Family heirlooms
Women are often the keepers of the family archive and so check with members of your family if they have items such as old photographs, certificates, a family Bible or hand-written recipe books. Many a clue can be found on the back of a photograph, the flyleaf of a book or from newspaper clippings.
Online women’s history projects
- Women’s History Network
- English Heritage, Women who made history
- Women’s Archive of Wales
- Mapping Memorial to Scottish Women
- Women’s History Guide, National Archives of Ireland