Tracking Your Past

By Doris Green

Look at your family tree. Where are branches lopped off? Where are your genealogy brick walls? If they are more often within the lives of female ancestors, you are not alone. In recognition of Women’s History Month, here are a few ideas for unearthing our female lines.

Doris Green

First, take another look at sources you’ve used in the past. Turn to a census listing your great-grandfather as head of household. This time, focus on each woman mentioned, whether they are single, wives, daughters or mothers. Create a timeline for each woman and follow their lives through available censuses or birth, marriage and death records.

Broaden your search to obituaries, as well as the birth and death records of her children and siblings. When you find her family name and her parents’ surname, you have found the key to her — and your own — lineage.

Look at such potential sources as cemetery markers, military pension records (for widows or mothers of unmarried sons who died in war), organization directories and the women’s pages of newspapers. Maybe your Great-Aunt Dorothy was a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding or contributed an ethnic recipe.

Court records may provide names involved in guardianship, probate or divorce cases. The estate records of a male ancestor may reveal the names and locations of female family members.

Are there immigration records? Ship passenger lists may reveal travel cohorts. Old Country church records may include outmigration letters. Church records anywhere may report marriage bans and baptisms revealing the names of godparents.

Old and newly published books may provide names or clues. Look in county histories and books preserving the stories of women in World War I or other exceptional circumstances. Do not overlook the memoirs of nurses, bandage rollers and Red Cross Donut Dollies.

Especially for women ancestors, there’s often no substitute for leaving your home office and visiting a location. An online cemetery database may omit significant information from a barely legible gravestone, while a visit may reveal the full names and relationships on nearby markers. Many records have yet to be digitized. Small-town libraries may contain old newspapers (indexed or not), scrapbooks, photos, family histories and even diaries.

Like many memoirs and other books, museums are invaluable sources. Even if an exhibit on a mine collapse, flood or other disaster does not mention that your great-great-grandmother made sandwiches for the rescuers, it still helps you feel and tell the story of a particular time and place.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit http://henschelhausbooks.com.