Honoring Our Ancestral Mothers

Today is Mother’s Day, and so we honor our moms.  We might send a card, have some flowers delivered, or even call our mothers if we are blessed to still have them.  This is how we show appreciation for our mothers today, but how do we honor all the mothers in our family tree who came before our own mother?

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Undated copy of photo, labeled only as “Mary,” in author’s collection

For many genealogists, researching females can be difficult.

To start with, we may not even know our ancestral mothers’ names.  They may have been obscured by history and tradition, known only as the “Mrs.” of their husbands.  Or worse, they may be completely silent in the records, with no mention at all.  Yet, we know they did exist–barring any modern reproductive scientific miracles, we simply would not be here today without our ancestral mothers.

How can we honor the memory of those mothers that may be so difficult to find?  The most obvious, simplest (but not easiest) thing we can do is give them back their names for posterity’s sake.

Here are several research tips to help locate females in historical records.

Search for Vital Records or their substitutes

Vital records are typically referred to as “BMDs,” short for birth, marriage, and death.  Whether viewing modern civil records or historical church records, these types of records will often list the full maiden name of the woman.

  • Marriage documents provide the best chance to locate the maiden name.  Look for the marriage application, license, or a consent to marry if the female was under legal age to marry.
  • Birth documents are usually accurate with regard to the mother’s information, because she was most likely the informant.  Look for birth certificates or registers, adoption decrees, or parish baptism or christening records.
  • Death records will provide information about females, but the records may not be as accurate, depending upon who the informant was (husband, sibling, child, grandchild, etc.).  Look for death certificates or registers, funeral home or mortuary records, cemetery records (such as who owned the plot), and obituaries.
  • Family Bibles are a great source of birth, marriage and death information if they can be located.  Often kept before the statewide requirements to record vital records, a family Bible may provide an adequate substitute.
Wedding portrait of Mary Elizabeth Bell, married John William Freeman 5 Nov 1891 in Hope, Lavaca, Texas

Wedding portrait of Mary Elizabeth Bell, great-grandmother of the author, dated 5 Nov 1891, who married John William Freeman in Hope, Lavaca, Texas, in author’s collection

Scour census records for all the clues they contain

Although census records may not directly answer our research questions, they often provide indirect evidence that can be used as clues to locate other original records.  Consider that beginning with the 1880 census, relationships to head-of-household were provided; thus, a mother-in-law or father-in-law listed in the wife’s household would be her parents.  Don’t overlook the following questions that were asked on various census years, which will point to other records such as marriages or births:

  • Was the person married within the census year? (1850-1890)
  • What was the person’s marital status? (1880-1940)
  • How many years has the person been married? (1900-1910)
  • What was the age at the person’s first marriage? (1930)
  • What was the parents’ place of birth? (1880-1940)

Other record types abound that mention women

Many other record types will name women in their proper familial context as daughters, wives, mothers or widows.  These records may not be as easy to locate or may cost a fee to obtain, but will be helpful in locating the elusive female.

  • Wills, probate or guardianship records – will mention the wife and may provide for the widow’s minor children
  • Land records – often mention the wife or widow, especially if she was entitled to a dower right in the property
  • Pension files – a widow would often apply for a military pension based upon her husband’s Revolutionary War, War of 1812, or Civil War service
  • Tax lists – a widow may show up on a tax list after her husband has died, being taxed on the same amount or value of property
  • Lineage or hereditary society applications – these documents have to connect each generation back to the target ancestor, and each fact on the application should be supported by named sources
  • County or local histories – these books became popular in the late 1800s and usually contain biographies that were submitted by a family member, although they rarely name their sources
  • Newspaper articles – in earlier times newspapers would print just about anything, so look for mentions of females in the social or gossip sections, as well as announcements for births, marriages or deaths
  • Manuscripts – libraries and archives often have unpublished collections of family papers that can be a goldmine for researchers, and may also have vertical files organized by surname
  • Photographs – family photos may contain notations that serve as clues about the females they depict, and websites such as Flickr, Facebook or eBay may host photos posted by others who are distant family members or unrelated resellers
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Lucille Freeman, about age 8 circa 1918, paternal grandmother of author, in author’s collection

While the resources described above may not always provide the answers we seek about our ancestral mothers, they are great places to begin looking.  Websites such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org or HeritageQuest (accessible via participating libraries) can be used to locate many of these records.  But for some records that are not available online, a road trip to a distant county courthouse or archive might be necessary to gain access to these records.

In conclusion, today’s challenge is to add at least one more female, or ancestral mother, to your family tree.  And when you do, how will you honor and celebrate her discovery?