History is notorious for ignoring women as individuals. For the most part, their history is clumped together with their fathers and then their husbands. In most cultures, children are branded with their father's surname and the mother's maiden name is obscured. When a woman married, she was expected to give up her birth name and accept her husband's surname. By doing this, her family history, in many cases, was severed. The cruelest blow to her identity was in death, when she was often referred to as Mr. So and So's relic or just Mrs. 'James Brown.'
As genealogists, we strive to give our ancestors identities. We endlessly search for their full names (including maiden names,) the names of the parents, when and where they were born and died. But how does one go about finding a mystery woman, perhaps a great-grandmother, when the odds are against it?
Fortunately, there are many records out there containing information to help identify a woman. Some cultures had a tendency to "erase" their women's identity more than others, so records vary.
The most obvious records to use to discover a maiden name are the records surrounding marriages. These include marriage records created by the province, church records, marriage announcements in the local newspapers, marriage certificates, marriage banns, marriage bonds and marriage licenses. Depending on the location and the era, one or more of these records may exist.
The birth of a child can also lead to the discovery of the mother's maiden name. Often, but not always, the maiden name will appear on birth certificates and baptizing records. If a child dies, sometimes, the death certificate or the burial records of a church will record the mother's maiden name. Obituaries for the child, the husband or for the woman, herself, may report the name.
Cemeteries are another good place to look. The woman's headstone might contain her maiden name. Or she may have been buried next to one of her parents or a sibling. This is one reason to note the people buried next to an individual when visiting cemeteries.
Census records can also provide clues. Sometimes a woman's widowed parent is living in her household.
Unless the husband of the woman in question is deceased and she is the head of the household, look for the in-law relationship. Sometimes this long term is shortened and hard to identify. The situation may have been reversed and a young couple may have lived with the wife's family.
Fortunately, some women left clues to their family's surname with their children. Over the centuries, both sons and daughters have been given their mothers' maiden names as middle names. This may not be obvious when the surname was also used as a given name, such as George or Jack, but names such as Smith, Hollett or Murphy should be looked at as possibilities.
We hope all women can be properly named, but for some, their true identities will be lost in time.
Seeking information on William H. Thompson, born in c.1830 at Lancashire, England. William probably died Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. Exactly where did he die and when? Where was he buried? Who were his parents? Contact: Ryan Thompson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Diana Lynn Tibert is a freelance writer living in Milford. Submit a query. RR#1 Milford, Hants County, NS, B0N 1Y0; email: email@example.com