Such a quote sounds grating and out-of-place in our twenty-first century society, but it was the legal and cultural reality under which American women lived during most of history, due to our heritage of English common law.
Blackstone’s quote above is in reference to an old concept called coverture, in which a woman’s rights and property were swallowed up in her husband’s when she married. The husband essentially became her guardian and representative, and with few exceptions, had sole power to buy and sell property, vote, sue in a court of law, and make decisions for the family.
With this background in mind, it is easy to understand why it can be difficult to find evidence of female ancestors, especially the further back one goes. For example, federal censuses pre-1850 listed only the names of the male heads of household (with the rare exception of those run by widows who had only minor children). Women in early American history were less likely to be literate and leave diaries or letters. Most wills were written by men with, again, the prime exception being widows who had been left property by their deceased husbands. And in most cases, women led quiet, domestic lives that left them out of the spotlight covered by contemporary historians.
So what are some things you can do in order to coax those hidden women out of the woodwork in your genealogical research?
- Make sure you have made a thorough search for marriage records. These will often be the only documents that will state a woman’s maiden name explicitly. This includes not only searching online indexes, but getting into microfilm and even contacting the historic church your ancestors attended. Get creative! Keep in mind that while resources like the internet and the Family History Library are wonderful, there is still so much more tucked away in small archives, tiny old churches, funeral homes, and public libraries that we don’t have access to without asking.
- Get to know the men in her family. Pay close attention to the people with whom your Mrs. and her husband interacted. Frequently, a marriage union would also cement ties between the families as a whole. Keep an eye out for land transactions, people mentioned in wills, and naming patterns within the family. If you can find a brother, you’ve also found her maiden name. For example, a father might leave land to his daughter and new son-in-law. A woman may give her son her maiden name as his middle name. Or a brother might be living temporarily in the family’s household. For example: If Mary Smith names her son William Bateman Smith, that could be a lead! It’s not smart to automatically assume, but it holds potential.
- Find an obituary. Admittedly, these can be more difficult to locate in the earlier days of our history, but they are invaluable when you find one! Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the obituary will note her maiden name. But even if it doesn’t, look out for the names of surviving brothers. An example from my own family tree: my third great-grandmother was a German immigrant to Indiana. She was born in 1822 and had been married twice – first to my ancestor, Christian Kramer who she had married back in Germany, and second to a man named Friedrich Schroeder. I was now in search of her maiden name and her obituary provided the needed clue. Tucked away at the end was a note that “[t]wo brothers also survive her, Messrs. D. and William Brandt of Malcolm, Neb[raska].” This example also provides another piece of cautionary advice: look for more than one obituary. In this case, the family had published the death notice in two separate papers. The first one I found contained no mention of these brothers. It was only when I found the second that I was able to solve the mystery.
- Read those county histories. These books were popular in the 1880s and 1890s, and often include biographical sections on early or prominent citizens of that county, even reaching back decades. Since the information in them was generally gained by interviewing family members or neighbors, it is seldom that they don’t include mention of the wife’s maiden name, father, or brothers. Example: I have used these to discover an ancestor’s first wife who died young and did not appear on any censuses or in the marriage index with him. Without that county history, I may not have known about her existence.
- Look closer at male-dominated records. A woman may not have been able to sell land on her own, but she could (and often did) appear in deed books alongside her husband. Be on the lookout for “…between Robert Taylor and wife Jane, and John Jacobs…” It may not give the maiden name, but even just a first name can help – especially in the colonial era, when even that simple bit of information can be hard to come by. A man will often also name his wife, minor and married daughters, and even daughters-in-law in his estate.
These are just some ideas to get you going in a side of genealogical research that involves 50% of your family, but can in many instances be 100% more difficult to trace. Identifying women in a family tree requires the researcher to be both thorough and creative, but there is very little more rewarding than finally finding that elusive lady and restoring her to collective memory.