The Archive Lady: Researching Female Ancestors
Judy in Georgia asks: “I have been doing my genealogy research for some time now and I do pretty well with the males in my family. I seem to get stuck or have a more difficult time finding records for the females in my family tree. Can you give me any tips or tricks to researching my female ancestors?”
Judy has asked a great question that I bet every one of us struggles with from time to time. Researching female ancestors can be more difficult than researching our male ancestors. But don’t let that deter you from learning about your female ancestors; they can have some of the best life stories.
One of the first things you can do to start researching your female ancestors is to look at what documents, records, photos and family stories that you already have in your genealogy collections. You may have records and items about your female ancestors to which you never paid much attention. Now is the time to get those out and read over them, transcribe them and glean any additional information that you didn’t realize you already had in those documents.
Don’t believe the “She was just a housewife” myth. It is true, a lot of our female ancestors were housewives, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t live a life full of activity outside of the home. So, let’s look at that . . .
One of the most popular activities our female ancestors engaged in was volunteerism. There were a variety of opportunities and organizations for which they could have offered their time as a volunteer and this is still true today. Local volunteer groups such as the American Red Cross, the women’s ministry at church, the food pantry at the local mission, a Sunday school teacher or public school volunteer are just a few opportunities available to our female ancestors. Maybe they volunteered or were part of a local club or civic organization such as the historical society, genealogical society, garden club, sewing club or home demonstration club. There were plenty of options for our female ancestors to get involved and volunteer in their community. The great thing is that many of these volunteer organizations produced records such as meeting minutes, event programs and even scrapbooks filled with photos and memorabilia.
Most of our female ancestors did the cooking for the family. While this day-to-day ordinary task was normal and expected from our female ancestors, we as genealogists might learn something about our female ancestors from this mundane daily activity.
Did your female ancestors leave behind handwritten recipes? As genealogists, we are always on the lookout for our male ancestor’s signature on documents. What a wonderful gem it is to have our female ancestor’s handwritten recipes. Not only do you have the wonderful recipes from years gone by, but you also have her handwriting.
Many of our families have food stories or family food traditions. A lot of us have foods in our families made at holidays or for special occasions that have been in our families for a long time. These special foods and the traditions that go with them most likely originated with a female ancestor. It is important to write down or record in some fashion these food traditions so that they are not lost to time. If they are not recorded in some way and passed down to each new generation, they will be lost forever.
Before They were “Mrs. Somebody”
Genealogists sometimes do their research with the premise that their female ancestors’ lives started at marriage. We all know that their lives, like the rest of our ancestors, started at birth. The fact is, many genealogists discount or don’t bother to look at those years before marriage. Maybe your female ancestors or family members never talked about their lives before they married. The fact is, our female ancestors could very well have events, occupations, hobbies or other interesting tidbits waiting for us to discover that occurred before they married. And these events could have records associated with them.
An example of someone who had a “life” before they married would be my husband’s grandmother Ruth Athelene (Burcham)(Barker) Reed (1921-2015). Grandma Ruth, as we called her, told me herself the story of how in the 1930’s she went from Houston County, Tennessee with her guitar to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee and tried out to be part of the new country music scene. She played her guitar, sang and showed off her talents for yodeling. Unfortunately, she was not chosen to be part of the Grand Ole Opry, but this was an event in her life, which took place before marriage, that she experienced and it helps to tell her unique story. I am still trying to find records to document this event; however, so far I have come up empty handed. Thankfully, I have her own story recorded in my genealogy research and I have the guitar that she used.
These are just a few of the tips to help Judy discover her female ancestor’s stories and records. All of our ancestors have a story to tell and it is our job as genealogists to locate the records and document the stories.
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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