Facebook Twitter

Finding women: the ultimate family history brick wall

SHARE Finding women: the ultimate family history brick wall

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

born in

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

common law

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

consent and

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

on, you

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

contracts, she

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


Little says.

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,"

Little says.

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

married cousins.

"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


Little says.

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


maternal grandfather.

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

person who

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

available. All

it takes is a little time.

E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com