Finding Maiden Names on Your Maternal Line

Happy Mother’s Day y’all! In honor of all of our mothers I wanted to share some of my ideas on the importance of our maternal lines and how to find those often difficult maiden names.

When I first started doing my family genealogy it was to specifically research my paternal line. As a male, I have to admit, this interested me the most. Finding how far back our family name went and the names of my ancestors who proudly bore that name down through the generations gave me a sense of connection to myself that I had never experienced before. It really grounded me as a person. My prodding into family ‘genealogy’ led me to expand my repertoire into ‘family history’ – genealogy being dates and names; family history being the stories behind those dates and names.

After looking at generations of my direct paternal line, I noticed a pattern. That pattern was that some of the maiden names of my female ancestors were passed down as first names for their children. This is common enough in the ancestry of those who can trace their roots back to the British Isles; however, those names started to stand out to me more and more and led me to think about who the wives of my g+ grandfathers were and where they came from.

Looking at the family lineages of g+ grandmothers are often called collateral lines, or even allied families. The usage of those terms is not strictly only for maternal lines but is encompassed by it. My curiosity at all of my g+ grandmothers deepened when I began seeing pictures of them, after all the roles of women were great indeed raising such large farming families! Besides, there are some really cool and interesting maiden names in our family. The importance of the women in our family really hit home to me.

Finding your family’s maiden names should not be that difficult going back through the 1900s. It should still a be fairly easy task from 1870 until 1900. It will start to get marginally difficult from 1840 until 1870, at least that’s been my experience. Your experience with your family genealogy, of course, will be necessarily different. The generality of these guidelines has to do with the amount, quality, and accessibility of records the farther you go back in time. Another major factor is the amount of records your family generated. If you had famous ancestors, you’re in luck, there will be plenty of stuff to troll through; if you were farmers like us, well, the records will be there but possibly a bit more sparse.

Finding the maiden names of your maternal lines will open up a whole new world of knowledge and understanding of who you are and where you come from. It also amounts to an exponential amount of new research to work on!!! It is so easy to get sidetracked on collateral line research; however, it’s extremely rewarding.

The best ways to find those valuable maiden names vary by time period; however, here are some of my ‘go-to’ techniques to root them out, in no particular order.

  1. Death certificates. Using the death certificates of children is usually the first place to look. Male children are easier to find if you do not know the married name of female offspring – it’s the maiden name paradox. There are sections on death certificates themselves which ask for the “father’s name” and “mother’s maiden name.” These aren’t always filled out properly (they are usually filled out by a next of kin or other family member who may or may not know what the actual maiden name was) so use some sense of caution when reviewing this information. It is always best to have at least one death certificate to verify another. I have experienced this twice where one informant on a death certificate supplied the incorrect information, I was lucky to have sources from another sibling to ultimately verify these ancestors’ correct maiden name.
  1. Following Census Data. This takes a bit more research skill but attempting to follow a potential family’s data records back in 10-year census increments might help to attach a maiden name to a female ancestor. Using this technique alone is not recommended, you should treat this type of information as a lead and not conclusive proof in and of itself. In this case, say you are searching for a Sarah, married in 1892, and you suspect her maiden name was Brown. Knowing she was 20 years old when she married, you would look to the 1880 census to find a Sarah Brown who was 12 and then the 1870 census for a Sarah Brown who was 2. This, again, is very tenuous research and needs to be ultimately corroborated. You would focus your search by location, noting where your ancestor was born on verifiable census data and then try and work backwards.
  1. Wills. Wills can be an excellent source of biographical information if you can find them. Not all wills are created equal. Knowing that, some wills have only basic information and will prove to be dead ends; others are very dutifully written and will include not only maiden names, but also the names of the spouse a female has married. I was fortunate enough to discover a will that was extremely detailed for my 2x great grandmother that had both her maiden name and her married name as well as the name of her spouse. That was a one-of-a-kind and the only one I have seen so far.
  1. Obituaries. Often obituaries are useful if they contain a bit of biographical information about where the subject was born and in the case for those fortunate few, a maiden name or the maiden name of a previous marriage. I have found that obituaries are only really useful researching people in the late 19th and 20th century, at least that’s been my experience.
  1. Other Researchers. Although it may be a tad impolite to say: never trust another researcher’s data 100%. Sorry! Having said that, if you are stuck researching the maiden name of an ancestor try looking at what other researchers have come up with as a starting point. It’s a good way to generate ideas. I have used this technique many times before, sometimes successfully, other times not. Also, don’t be afraid to ask another researcher about his or her data, politely of course, and if you find conclusive evidence about an ancestor that nullifies the conclusion of another researcher, then always be willing to share your findings. Genealogy is about family and is ultimately a community effort. I have built a few nice relationships employing this technique.

As a side note, if you are initiating a dialogue about another researcher’s conclusions, it is always best that you properly introduce yourself and your connection to that family member (ancestor). People will undoubtedly question who you are! That’s been my experience, and rightfully so I should add.

  1. Naming Patterns. In families from the British Isles at least, naming patterns often took a semi-formal or cultural format, especially in the South where my family comes from. Boys’ names came from the father and uncles or grandfathers, girls’ names from the mother, etc., in a specific order. Over successive generations a pattern emerges that when broken, provides clues to the origin of those aberrant names. For example, if your family line is full of Johns and Elijahs and Jameses, then noticing the odd Spencer or Harper as a first name might yield a clue as to the maiden name of a female ancestor. I have a great grandfather who was a twin and using this technique I found out that of the two twins one twin was given the name of their paternal grandfather, the other the name of their maternal grandfather. That was a cool find!
  1. Local Histories. Researching the area in which your family lived will sometimes help to elucidate clues as to possible maiden names by identifying the names of different families that lived contemporary to your ancestors. This is especially true of rural families in the 1800s and beyond. Families didn’t live in isolation: they went to church, they had social gatherings, they often intermarried to produce collateral lines. The first place to start would be to understand the basic dates of when a state was formed. From there you would want to know when and how the counties where your ancestor lived were formed.
  1. Marriage Certificates. And finally, of course, the all-important marriage certificate! These are absolutely invaluable to any researcher. They are not always available, not always accurate, and may need to be transcribed the farther you go back in time. Reproductions of marriage banns and county records exist but may or may not be accurate, always search for the original marriage certificate which are referenced by these types of records; indices are not meant to be exhaustive, stand alone records. After incorporating an indexed record of a North Carolina marriage certificate from 1843, I spent a good two years hunting down the original as a side project. When I finally found it, it was hand-written and with very poor penmanship I have to say! After digging my heels in and transcribing it (with the help of a cousin who was kind enough to double-check my work) I was blessed to find out that, unlike all the other printed marriage certificates from that particular county in NC, mine had the name of the bride’s father also included in there. Woohoo!

The last tidbit of advice is to KEEP SEARCHING! Records are being added all the time to places like Family Search and Ancestry. I was fortunate to find the above-mentioned record because it hadn’t been made available when I initially did my research and because I had been vigilant, I saw the release of these newly published North Carolina marriage bonds the day they were made available. Happy Mother’s Day!

For more information on this topic, check out my article on the 3 Basics of Family History Research!

I hope this article has benefited you! Thank you for reading this article and being a part of NOW-Power!


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