One of the common challenges I come across in my family history research has to do with the maiden names of the ladies who marry into a family. Identity is a simple thing – a first name and a last name at the very least. We have a full name and it’s only natural that we want our ancestors to have full names as well.
Women’s maiden names (the last name or surname they were born with) should be used in family history research – especially on family trees. Maiden names should be used rather than using a husband’s surname. It’s for this reason I never use a married woman’s last name from a census document – that surname usually isn’t the one she was born with…unless she and her husband were kin (i.e. cousins), which I’ll cover below.
I’ll also be covering places where you can find maiden names.
If a female ancestor/relation’s maiden name is unknown, use only her first (given) name leaving the her surname blank. For example, you have an ancestor or distant relation Bessie whose maiden name is unknown. Bessie is married to your ancestor/relation George Carpenter. You would add her to your tree as simply as Bessie. If her middle name is known, such as Bessie Anne, you would add her as Bessie Anne (the more information you have about an ancestor or relation the better. It helps to distinguish them from many others with the same first name born around the same time).
If a woman had more than one husband, you would follow the same procedure for both husbands. If the maiden name is unknown for both husbands, it’s best practice to list the woman with just her first name.
I know this seems a bit mean, denying a female ancestor or relation her full and rightful name. However, unless she was kin to her husband, and born with the same family name, giving her a surname she wasn’t born with can cause problems for those researching the their own family lines. You can always came back and fill in the missing surname later if you find it in the official records.
There are a few reasons for this:
Taking this approach will help others researching the same family find the correct information for their own family history research. It’s also important to be able to trace both the maternal and paternal lines of a family tree. In the example given above, if Bessie Carpenter was actually born Bessie Price, it would be difficult for others researching the Price family to find her or make a connection between a woman listed as Bessie Carpenter being a Price ancestor or relation. And that’s half the enjoyment of genealogy (for me at least) re-establishing those family connections, no matter how distant, lost over time.
Maiden names: when cousins marry + how to find maiden names online
In Southern families, and particularly with Southern African-American families, cousins from different branches of the same family tended to marry one another. This information tends to be cited on marriage certificates. The groom’s parents are typically listed (often times his mother’s maiden name is give) and the bride’s family details are also given in most cases (again, even her mother’s maiden name is typically given).
So if I find a Mary Sheffey cited on an 1880 Census record, and she’s married to a Mitchell Sheffey, I initially note that Mitchell Sheffey married a woman called Mary and record her on Ancestry.com without her married name. My next step is to search through the marriage records on Familysearch.org. If I know Mitchell’s parents’ name, it’s easier to verify if I’m looking at the correct marriage record. If she is listed as “Mary Sheffey” on the marriage certificate, with a father bearing the surname “Sheffey”, then (and only then) will I put her as “Mary Sheffey” in my family tree. If I can’t find a marriage record, I’m afraid I leave his wife’s name simply as “Mary” – even if she is cited as “Mary Sheffey” on the marriage certificate.
If searching marriage records isn’t fruitful, I turn to birth records for their children. Again, Familysearch.org is a great and easy resource to use to access these records. Marriage records don’t always use the mother’s maiden name. However, in the interest of accuracy and research I do use these as a port of call if I can’t find what I’m seeking in the marriage records.
Last, but not least, are death records. These too can be freely accessed on Familysearch.org. Like birth records, sometimes they cite maiden names, sometimes they don’t.
One reason why maiden names are important
Missing out on maiden names is missing out on pats of your family history journey. Through the accurate recording of maiden names, I can begin to see certain family patterns, bourne out through looking at census records from 1870 to 1900. Things like the close connections between the Sheffey, Byrd, Hill, and Carpenter families of Virginia – closely knit families tied together through marriage and proximity. And the Roane, Byrd, James and Price families of Virginia. As well as the Josey, Smallwood, Wynn and Magett families of North Carolina. These ties were established well before the end of slavery and remained well into the early Twentieth Century. I’ll be covering this family dynamic in a future post.
So my advice is if you come across a Bessie in a census record, and she’s married to your great-grandfather Mitchell, record her as Bessie, without a surname, until you can find her maiden name.
Top places to find maiden names:
- Marriage Certificates
- Death Certificates
- Children’s Baptism/Christening Records
- Children’s Birth Records
- Land Registry entries (this is a long short for early African-American families but worth a look)
- Wills and Probate Records (this is a long short for early African-American families but also worth a look)
- Obituaries (again, a long short for African-American families pre-1930s and 1940s)