SALT LAKE CITY — I understand the problem Barbara Vines Little is talking
about at the National Genealogical Society (NGS) 2010 Family History
on April 30. Finding women is not always easy.
I'm sitting next to Richard Wilson from Easton, Md. "All
my brick walls are women," Wilson laments. "They drive you crazy."
My missing woman is my great-grandmother Emily. She married John
Poland. The 1900 census shows her living in Trenton, N.J., but
give a maiden name, of course. All it really tells me is that she was
England (which really bugged my "I'm 100 percent Irish" mother. Mom
still hasn't forgiven me).
The crowded session is full of people with problem women.
Some of these problem women don't even have first names. They are just
identified as "wife" or "woman."
"Everybody in here has lost a woman?" Little asks.
"And I'm going to solve all your problems, right?"
"That's your job," a woman shouts out.
"That's my job, right after I sell you the Brooklyn
Bridge," Little says to laughter.
Little, who is a past president of NGS, begins with a
disclaimer: "This is not going to be an easy task. I'm not going to give
you any quick solutions. I'm going to suggest ways that you can solve
problem. But I make no promises about the length of time it will take."
About six years ago, Little found an ancestor she had been
hunting for 42 years. That woman had been hiding in some school records
had found by accident. "In looking for her and some other recalcitrant
ladies who did not want to be found, I have come with some strategies."
The first strategy is to become familiar with how a woman
functions in society during her lifetime. For example, Little focuses on
research in colonial Virginia, and so she is familiar with English
about women. If you know how a missing woman may have lived, you can
what possible records may have been made of her life.
One example of laws is that a female child could not marry without
parental permission until the age of 21. "Now, does that mean that if
there is no parental permission she was 21? No. It just means she
somebody she was 21.," Little says. "Is there anybody in here that
would like to say they always comply with the law?"
A married woman, called a "femme covert," did not
exist in the eyes of the law, Little says. She could not sue in court
her husband, her personal property became her husband's. Her husband
her real property and its income. He couldn't sell it without her
she couldn't sell her own land without his consent.
"Why am I going into all this?" Little says. "Because
unless you know what is going on in a woman's life and why it is going
are not going to be able to find her."
A "femme sole" could be a widow, divorced or a
single woman who never was married. She could sue in court, sign
could give things in wills and she controlled her own real estate and
property. "So if you see a woman doing this, then you know she is
But not always.
Little told about an exception where a tavern license was
granted to the wife and not the husband because she could be trusted and
husband could not. "You look at the rules, there are always exceptions,"
From the 1830s to 1840s, the Married Women Property Act gave
married women in various states the right to control their own property.
So how can this type of information help find that hidden
woman in your family tree?
Start with what you know.
Most of the time it is easy to judge the approximate age of
the woman because it can be calculated from when her children were born.
approximate marriage date can also be implied. "Those are two things you
really need to know if you are going to find her," Little says.
What were the names of her children? What were the names of
her grandchildren — especially what were their middle names? "Those are
frequently family names," Little says. Don't assume, however, that they
are her maiden name.
Whom did the children and grandchildren marry? They often
"You cannot find women by doing direct line research
and just looking in records," Little says. "You have to learn about
the whole family."
Did the children move to another area? Who went with them?
Maybe they moved with some of her family. "Uncle Jim is doing fine and
going to move out there with Uncle Jim (who happens to be Mother's
Did her husband serve in the military? She may have received
pension payments — and if so, she had to prove she was married to him.
Sometimes someone had to come into court and testify they were at the
This can bring out important information.
Track them in every national and state census.
Little found a lost woman in the census once — a widow. She
was living with her sister who had never married. Voila! Maiden name.
Look for legal papers. Look for family letters — and not
just in her family. Check cousins as well.
Church records can tell a lot of information — not just
birth and baptism. Look at her church and her husband's if it is
Did she inherit property? Track it. Little had a woman who
inherited land from her mother. Little found the original owner and a
that it was purchased by Mr. Young for his son and daughter — who was
hidden woman's mother. Ta-da! Maiden name and family.
Look at artifacts. Look at photographs. Look at family
recipes for ethnic clues.
If the husband has died, Little says to always check to make
sure she didn't marry again. Later marriage records sometimes have more
information than the first marriage records.
Do this for the children's marriages and second marriages.
Sometimes they have to record their mother's maiden name.
Look for the birth certificates of all of the children and
grandchildren. Little remembers the time a certificate was recorded by
Look at everybody's death certificates. Look at obituaries.
Look at marriage records.
When you find an obituary, read the social columns in the
newspaper for about a week. The social columns may mention relatives who
to town for the funeral. "Mary Smith's sister from Wichita, Kan., was in
town last week for her sister's funeral."
Also check religious and ethnic newspapers as well as the
regular newspaper as much as nine months after the event.
The 1880 census took a census of newspapers. Find a copy to
see what newspapers were available in the area of the search.
If there is an estate to be settled, look for legal notices.
She could be in a list of heirs.
Church records are also a good source, and not just for
baptism, marriage and death records. Some churches kept good records of
sins. Also check out ministers' biographies.
In the baptismal records, Little says to pay close attention to
sponsors — they are often the mother's sisters. "If something happens
her, she wants her sisters to look after her children."
Who is she buried next to? Sometimes a woman is buried next
to her parents and siblings.
Check out the records from schools, boarding schools,
religious schools, universities and businesses. Look at courts and
records. Look at deeds, probate records, estate sales records — who is
Beware of divorces. Families don't talk about them. Little
never knew her great grandmother was divorced. She asked her mother
about it. "Why
didn't you tell me?" Little said.
"We don't talk about those things," her mother
A relative married for a second time in his 70s to a 32-year-old woman. Nobody ever mentioned it in the family. Not even the
wrote the family history who was alive at the time. The record of the
marriage had information Little did not have.
"I don't care how many times you talk to Aunt Tilly,
there are some things she is not going to tell," Little says.
Look at neighbors. Neighbors married neighbors.
"To find these women you have to do whole family
research," Little says.
"Now, it's not easy, but it can be done."
I leave the session realizing my problem woman, Emily, isn't
so lost after all. I haven't even begun to look at the resources
it takes is a little time.