If you’re completely stuck trying to find the maiden name of one, or many, of your female ancestors you’re not alone. Because women often left their maiden names long behind when they got married they can be incredibly hard to uncover in some cases — and not being able to find one can often mean a complete dead end.
If we’re lucky, we can find a maiden name in one of the usual resources — on a marriage certificate or death record, in the census, or listed on the birth or baptismal record of a child. But very often this is simply not the case. Too often, informants on death records did not know, or bother to list, the maiden name of a woman, or married names were used in place of maiden names. Sometimes these records simply aren’t available, especially if you’re researching women before 1850.
There is still hope, however, even if you have come up short in the past. Take a look at these 7 unique tips for finding a maiden name and see if you can apply them to your own research.
1. Look at the first and middle names of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
As most family historians recognize, families often honored their loved ones by naming their children after relatives. And this wasn’t only true for first names. Many families incorporated the surnames of women into first and middle names. Examine the names of your female ancestor’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren carefully for clues.
Do any names stand out to you as looking like a surname? Does that surname fit in anywhere else in your tree already? If not, you may be on to something.
Try temporarily ‘pretending’ that this is the woman’s maiden name and doing some new searchers for her using it. It may turn up records where none were before. Some women also tacked on their maiden names to their middle names when they got married, so look for clues there as well.
Just be careful not to make assumptions that can lead to incorrect additions to your tree. Use this trick, and all tricks in this article, as helpful tools only– always look for solid verification before adding any information to your files. Before adding a maiden name to your tree, make sure you find a connecting document (a document that lists both the woman’s known family, such as spouse and children, along with her maiden name or parents).
Get the Free Genealogy Newsletter
We'll email you our newest family history articles, tips and tricks each week. It's always free and you can unsubscribe at any time.
2. Look at informant last names.
An informant is someone who provided information about a person when they were unable to do so, usually after their death. If you can locate the death record for your female ancestor, and it doesn’t show the maiden name as it usually should, look at the last name of the informant. This person is very often related. Often, it is a child or spouse, but sometimes it can also be a sibling. If the person is a male sibling, or unmarried female sibling, you could be in luck.
As with the tip above, this is only a clue. Remember that this person could be completely unrelated, or the surname may be irrelevant. Some death records listed the relationship of the informant and some did not. But if you think there is a chance that the surname could be a match, try doing some new searches using this information and see what you come up with.
3. Look at neighbors in census records.
Census records are a huge part of building most family trees since they provide so many valuable clues. A maiden name can be one of them, if you know how to look. Of course, the federal census did not ask for maiden names (wouldn’t that be lovely) but it can still provide clues.
Take a look at the people listed directly before and after your ancestor in the census — at least on the same page and the page before and after. These were your ancestor’s neighbors, and they could be family. Seeing a matching surname to the head of household is always a clue that this was an area of relations, of course, but since many families tended to stay close together any one of these people could be the parents of your female ancestor. They wouldn’t share a surname with her if she’s married, but there are other clues.
How can you know? Well, you probably can’t know for sure, but you can look for hints. Do you see a family where the head and/or spouse may be the right age to be the parents of your ancestor? Do you see children listed with them that you have seen mentioned elsewhere (ie a ‘Louise’ when a ‘Louise’ also informed at your ancestor’s death). These possible connections should be examined carefully. If you think there is any chance that this could be a match, look into it — it’s worth a shot. Follow every avenue, and always, always look for proof before adding anything to your tree.
4. Look for an elderly mother or father living with the family.
This brings us to another way the census can help us locate maiden names. Very often, as a person aged and their spouse passed on they went to live with family. Make sure you look at every census record you can find for your female ancestor, right up until the end of her life, and see if you can find an older woman (or man) living with them (or next door). Check the census records of grown children too. This person would be listed as ‘mother,’ ‘mother-in-law’ or ‘grandmother,’ but not always. Sometimes enumerators mixed up relationships. Leave no stone unturned, this may be the break you’re looking for.
5. Leave out a surname completely when doing a record search.
Often times, we feel like we need to have a surname to do a record search for a person. For those of us looking for a maiden name, we will often use the married name so that we can locate matching records. This is, of course, the best first step. But what happens when we continually fail to find what we need? It’s time to leave out the surname in our searches.
Try searching by first name only and add some other identifying information (such as a birth date or death date) or relationships (such as spouse or children). Removing that surname will allow whatever database you’re searching to explore new areas that may turn up records you haven’t seen. You might be surprised how well this can work.
This trick works especially well for women with uncommon first names — but can also work well for common names. Just make sure you don’t grab the records for the wrong “Ann” or “Elizabeth.” Unrelated people can have incredibly similar details, so always make sure the person you think might match actually does.
6. Search for the married surname only.
You probably already realize that some people tended to use their middle names (or nicknames) as their first names in parts of, or throughout, their lives. This could mean that if you’re searching for a woman listed as “Mary” in one record (that you have no maiden name for) and searches for that “Mary” plus the known married name have turned up no results, you could be looking for the ‘wrong’ person.
She could be listed as middle name/nickname plus married name instead — or under a misspelling of her first name. Avoid this by using the same strategy as above (include other identifying details) but exclude the first name in your search, or use a middle name or nickname if you have one. This may turn up records where both the married name and the maiden name are included and give you the break you need.
7. Look where you wouldn’t normally.
You’ve checked all the normal suspects (marriage records, birth records of children, death records) but what about some more unusual sources? Many can be great places to find maiden name mentions.
— the birth records of ALL children of a female ancestor (just because you couldn’t locate the maiden name on a birth record for the child you descend from in your female ancestor’s line doesn’t mean you won’t find it on a record for one of her other children)
— an obituary for your ancestor or her spouse or children
— in a will
— in a burial record
— or in a military pension record.
— other special local, cultural, religious, military, federal or employment records
Check everything you can find very carefully and you may just put an end to that brick wall. Find many free resources here that can help.
As always, verify everything — use assumptions only as tools. Have a trustable source for every single fact.
Where have you located the maiden names of hard to find female ancestors?
By: Melanie Mayo | Editor, Family History Daily
Image: Ella A. Boole, Pres’t W.C.T.U. 1925, Library of Congress