Tracing Women Identifying Maiden Names (National Institute)

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
National Institute for Genealogical StudiesNational Institute for Genealogical Studies.gif

The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women  by Lisa Alzo, M.F.A.. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Locating Maiden Names In Public Sources

In order to locate information about your female answers, you will want to peruse a variety of public records. Before you begin your search either online or offline, there is a very useful reference book I highly recommend:

Schaefer, Christina Kassabian,The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women’s Genealogy (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1999).

This book gives a state-by-state guide for the U.S. of where to look for records and other resources specifically about or pertaining to women. I consider it an “essential” book for the serious genealogist’s library shelf. It is available from or you can look for it at your local library.

Vital Records

With the anticipation of locating a maiden name, check all associated birth, death and divorce records for the woman, as well as for her siblings and children. The good news-many types of records or other sources of genealogical evidence are either now available online, indexed online with digital images pending, or easily ordered online from archives and libraries.

Marriage Records

The best place to locate a woman’s maiden name is on a marriage record (both civil and religious). These records include licenses, banns, bonds and consent affidavits. A Bann is an announcement of an intended marriage usually made in church on three successive Sundays. Prior to the 20th century, grooms were required to sign a bond—a document to ensure that there was no reason, moral or legal, for the couple not to marry. Typically, the father or brother of the bride signed as surety on the bond. A consent affidavit was usually signed by a parent or guardian (usually the father) in cases where the bride or groom was under the minimum legal age for marriage. Note the names of the witnesses, as these are often people associated with both the bride and groom’s families. Perhaps there will be a notation that the husband and wife were from the same town, or that your ancestor may have likely married someone who lived within thirty miles of where he/she lived. Finally, do not assume that a person had only one marriage, especially when the vital records are sparse or missing.

In the U.S., marriage records are usually found at the county or town clerks’ offices, but sometimes records are found in church offices, state offices of vital records or boards of health. Consult for information on marriage records for each state.

If your ancestor was religious, there may a record of her marriage may be found in the local church. You will need to know the religious faith or denomination. Even if your female ancestor was not known to actively attend a church, or if family stories indicated she eloped, it’s still worth contacting churches in the area to see if by chance they have a record of the marriage. Be careful not to make assumptions about your ancestor’s life. Always look for the proof!

Marriage records in Canada have been recorded for the most part since the early 1900s and primarily kept by the individual provinces. For all older information of this kind, you must go to churches in the region. In order to find the pertinent documents, you therefore have to know the religion of the person whom you are trying to trace and the name of the parish or mission that he or she attended. See websites such as Canadian Archival Information Network - Religious Archives Resources.

Marriage - Not Just a Ceremony

There are more than a dozen official marriage documents that may be created for each marriage—before and after the event. You may not find all of these for your particular ancestor, but it’s worth trying to track them down.

Before the Marriage (Intent to Marry)

  • Consent Affidavit
  • Declaration of Intent
  • Banns
  • Intentions
  • Allegations
  • Pre-Nuptial documents (to protect individual property rights)
  • Marriage Contract
  • Agreement
  • Marriage Permits
  • Applications
  • License
  • Bonds

After the Marriage

  • Marriage Certificate
  • Registration of Marriage
  • Marriage Register
  • Church book register

You may find proof of a marriage in vital/civil records, church records, or both. Here are a few items to watch for:

  • Affirmations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Endorsement on License
  • Stub
  • Return
  • Justice of the Peace/Justice of the Peace Annual Report
  • Mayor/Judge
  • Captain/Commander
  • Minister
  • Missionary
  • Post-Nuptial Contract (to avoid complicated divorce proceedings)

Divorce Records

Prior to the 20th century, divorces were often difficult and expensive to obtain, especially for women. But contrary to assumptions, they did happen. If no other sources exist, you may be able to find a clue to a maiden name by checking divorce decrees. To obtain a copy of a divorce decree in the U.S., write or go to the vital statistics office in the state or area where the event occurred. (See Vital Statistics website for more information.)

In Canada, information about divorce records can be found on the Canadian Genealogy Centre website. Divorce records can also be found at the provincial level and are outlined on the above mentioned website.

Here’s what to look for when tracking a divorce:

  • Newspaper Legal Notices
  • Annulments
  • Church
  • Civil
  • Court Files and Decree
  • Name Changes


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.