How to Identify the Maiden Name
During most of the early history of the United States, women came under the legal status of their husbands. This meant that women were not required to be directly involved in many of the records kept at that time. Since this can make women harder to find, to be successful you need to understand which records might provide you with their names, or at least clues you can combine together to identify them. To find women in the records, it is important to focus on the men they were related to: husbands, fathers, grandfathers, brothers, sons, and even uncles or cousins.
Records are listed in general order, starting with the records most likely to be successful due to record content and ease of access.
TRY THESE RECORDS FIRST:
Vital Records - General Principles
Check availability in the FamilySearch Wiki by searching for the [name of state] and “birth” or “marriage” or “death”.
In most states, marriage records start when the county began (or the town in New England.)
Birth and death certificates usually began in the early 1900s. If the family was born in the 1800s then search first for the death certificates for those children who might have died in the 1900s.
Always note the names of the witnesses or informants because they are often close relatives, but remember that the informant might not always know/provide all the correct information.
Check the “Atlas of Historical County Boundaries” to understand the county boundaries at the time of the event. Your ancestor might have lived in two different counties, but never moved.
If not found, then extend the search years on each side of the event and check surrounding counties.
Find Vital Records:
FamilySearch, Ancestry ($), and FindMyPast ($) have many vital records.
FamilySearch Wiki: search [name of state] and “online records.”
Vital records to search:
Their marriage license or certificate
Check the county where 1) the couple was first listed in the census, 2) where their first child was born, or 3) where the individuals lived before marriage.
Check several census records after 1850 to determine her state of birth and check there.
Look for marriage banns and bonds in earlier time periods.
Her Death certificate and her spouse’s – especially for those deaths after early 1900s.
Find the birth, marriage and death certificates/license for each of her children.
These will often include the maiden name of the mother.
Census Records - Find your female ancestor in each census record she was alive.
In 1850 and later, the U.S. Census lists each person by name, and from 1880 on they listed the person’s relationship to the head of household.
Don’t assume you found the right person just because the woman is the right age
Sometimes a young couple might be living with her parents, or an aging parent or one of her siblings might live with the couple.
After 1850, find the husband in a census just before he was married. Search for women with the same first name and of the right age who lived in the same or nearby towns or counties.
See if she disappears from the census about the time of marriage.
Prior to 1850, look for possible surnames in families who lived nearby who had a female who was age 15-29.
Remember to look for state censuses as well. Check the FamilySearch Wiki for availability.
Always view the original record for additional details that might provide evidence.
Find Census Records:
FamilySearch, Ancestry ($), and MyHeritage ($)
Look at people buried nearby because family members were often near each other.
Find Cemetery Records:
FamilySearch: Find A Grave Index
FamilySearch: BillionGraves Index
Ancestry: U.S., Find A Grave Index ($)
Published family trees – use these trees only as a suggestion to confirm with further research.
FamilySearch Family Tree
Ancestry’s Public Member Trees
MyHeritage Family Trees
Social Security Records
The Application for a Social Security Card (SS-5 Form) often includes genealogical information, including the names of the parents. (Social Security Act passed in 1935)
Find Social Security Records:
Ancestry ($): U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 this indexes the SS-5 applications, as well as claims, so it includes the names of the applicant’s parents.
Alternate option: For ancestors who may have applied for a Social Security card, identify their Social Security number in FamilySearch: United States Social Security Death Index. Then order the SS-5 Form by filling out the “Request for Deceased Individual’s Social Security Record” at https://www.ssa.gov/forms/ssa-711.pdf.
Probate/Estate Records: wills, inventories, guardianships, etc.
If you have a possible surname, check for probate records in the area because daughters are often listed under their married name.
Search for her married name in probate records.
Find probate records:
Ancestry Database Catalog: type [name of state] and “probate” or “will” or “estate”
FamilySearch Historical Records: type “probate” in “Find a collection”
Family History Library Catalog: search on the county level
NEXT SEARCH IN THESE RECORDS:
Obituaries – Check for an obituary of the person, a spouse, or a child.
Find Obituary Records:
Ancestry: U.S., Obituary Collection, 1930-2015
Cyndi’s List: Obituaries
Especially check Grantee records - when the husband sold land, the wife often had to give consent to release her dower right (inheritance).
When a man died, often his real estate was divided among his children and the daughters were listed under their married name. Search for them in the grantor-grantee indexes.
Especially watch for a deed of land to your ancestor for a small amount of money.
Find land records:
Ancestry Database Catalog – type [name of state] and “land” or “deed” or “patent,” etc
FamilySearch Historical Records: Research by Location and choose your state, then look for land records
Family History Library Catalog: search on the county level
Pension records typically provide the most genealogical information and can include the name of the wife or daughter.
If the female ancestor you are looking for was born around the time of a war and up to 20 years after, then check for a pension record for the father.
Bounty land warrants can also list the name of the spouse
Find military records:
Fold3 ($) is the best site to start looking for military records.
Ancestry ($) and FamilySearch also have military collections.
See also United States Military Online Genealogy Records
Many state archives or libraries have online military collections, especially for the Civil War.
City Directories –have been published usually yearly since the early 1800's.
An alphabetical listing of inhabitants arranged by name, address, and occupation, with the wife sometimes listed in parenthesis.
Widows, working women, and sometimes adult children at home were listed.
City directories are a good place to check possible surnames nearby.
Find City Directories:
Ancestry ($): City Directories
United States Online Historical Directories
Family History Library Catalog: [state, county, city]; or [name of state] and “city directory.”
Local and County histories
Also check histories for siblings, children or grandchildren.
WorldCat Library is an online catalog for many libraries around the world. It will also reference online sources for some books. If not available online, you can often do interlibrary loan through your local library.
FamilySearch Catalog lists books available at the Family History and it also has a link to the book if they have digitized it.
Google search: [county, state] and “history”
Watch for Naming Patterns - Especially watch for unusual first or middle names
A name could be given the name of a grandparent or the mother’s surname
Church Marriage or Christening Records
Check FamilySearch Wiki: United States Church Records for the state you are researching in.
Newspapers for birth or marriage announcements
If a female was widowed, she might use a male relative as a witness or to give a surety in a bond.
Immigration or Naturalization records
Perform a Google Search
Research her Extended Family, Associates, and Neighbors (FAN Club)