Tracing Women Using Home and Family Sources (National Institute)

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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 ($).

Start with Home and Family Sources

Some initial clues to the females in your family tree may closer than you may think. Therefore, the first place you should begin your research is at home. Take an inventory of all home and family sources, such as legal documents, family photographs, and other items that may provide valuable clues upon which to base your initial research. If you do not have any such items, perhaps these will be in the possession of an immediate family member or other relative, so ask around. Below is a brief checklist of home and family sources

Brief Checklist of Home and Family Sources

  • Legal documents
  • Birth, marriage, death certificates
  • Naturalization certificates or alien registration cards
  • Passport
  • Social Security Card
  • Wills, military, work or other papers
  • Birth announcement
  • Christening (baptismal) record
  • Vaccination records
  • Wedding announcement or invitation
  • Obituary or Death notice
  • Bible
  • Photographs
  • Clothing, jewelry, heirlooms
  • Letters
  • Quilts
  • Needlework Samplers
  • Calling Cards/Funeral Cards
  • Newspaper Clippings
  • Scrapbooks
  • Bridal or Baby Books
  • Postcards
  • Autograph Books
  • Yearbooks
  • Books
  • Fraternal insurance records/dues books
  • Miscellaneous Paperwork of Relatives

Diaries, Letters, and Photographs

Not all women kept diaries. However, if your ancestor kept a diary or journal, this a great source for information. If you aren’t sure whether or not your ancestor kept one, perhaps it was not in traditional labeled journal or diary book. Perhaps they recorded their thoughts in a small notepad, book or address book. If you have living relatives, ask them if they or anyone in the family held onto letters, diaries or journals and who in the family has them or inherited them.

If not, then you can always consult published diaries of your ancestors’ contemporaries to gain insight into their lives. Consult Laura Arksey’s American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals (check your local library or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). NUCMC ) a cooperative cataloging program operated by the U.S. Library of Congress. The catalogs from 1986/87 to the present are searchable online. Those from 1959-1985 are available in print form only.

Check the collections of your local archives and libraries for women’s diaries. If your female ancestors were from Canada, consult Diaries in English by Women in Canada, 1753-1995: An Annotated Bibliography, by Kathryn Carter (Ottawa: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, 1997). Sometimes women’s diaries have been made available through an online exhibit, such as the Archives of Ontario’sA Lifetime - Day by Day:Five Women and their Diaries are available.

Letters and postcards from family members may contain a wealth of information including names, dates, and places, recipes, and even family secrets! Check for envelopes too that may contain a return address, a postmark stamp, or if from a foreign country, perhaps even the name of the town or village of origin. Sometimes these are tucked inside a family bible, great-grandma’s jewelry box, the pocket of an old piece of clothing, or even behind other documents in a desk drawer or safety deposit box.

If your female ancestor did not leave a written legacy of her own, often a second-hand account is better than none at all.

In some instances photographs often accompanied significant life events: baptisms, marriages, funerals. Photographs, in particular, often provide valuable clues about our ancestors. No matter how many facts we acquire, or stories we record, nothing compares to having an image of someone who has gone before, and if you are lucky enough to possess a photograph of one or more of your ancestors consider it a true treasure. A photograph often provides a wonderful reflection of the time period during which your ancestor lived.


Have you inherited any jewelry, family heirlooms or other keepsakes from one or more of your female ancestors? What about clothing? I have my grandmother’s scarf, and camisole, my mother’s wedding dress and rings.

What do these items tell you about your ancestors? Are there any clues you can use for research—inscriptions, brand names, embroidery? If you have an heirloom, what do you know or remember about its significance? Can you write a story about it?

Recipes and Traditions

Did the women in your family have any special recipes or traditions that they handed down through the generations? These may not be “traditional” genealogical sources, but give insight into the heritage of your female ancestors. For example, my mother kept meticulous notes in some of her recipe books. Her attention to detail is one of her most distinguishable characteristics. Don’t overlook sources such as recipe cards or family traditions. Many times women were the “glue” that held a family together.

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.