Tracing Women Using Land, Tax, Probate, Military, Society, and Newspaper Records (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 ($).

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Although in our ancestors’ day, few women had legal land ownership rights, land or property, and probate records can still provide valuable information if you know where to look and what to look for. You will be surprised at what you will find out about a woman by tracking the records of the men in her life (husband, brothers, father, uncle, etc.).

Land Records

Land records are some of the earliest available genealogical records. Land records may reveal details such as if the father gave property to a couple as a dowry, and it immediately reverted to her husband’s name. Also, take into account that once married, a husband could sell a wife’s inherited property without her knowledge. Always check grantee (buyer) and grantor (seller) records to determine when the woman or her husband first appear as owning land and then when the land is sold, typically after the death of the woman or her husband. In the 19th century, due to the right of dower, a woman is identified when a couple sold land, and not when the land was purchased. Look for statements at the end of a deed that may indicate that “of her own free will” she agreed to have these lands sold. The last land sale may include a date of death which can help secure an obituary or death certificate. Also, check for all the heirs who may be selling and signing off on their parents’ land after their death. In addition, seek out key phrases such as “et ux” which is a Latin abbreviation meaning “and wife,” and “et al” which is Latin for “and others.” Finally, if you can’t locate a woman or her husband, look for their children or grandchildren. In the U.S., deed books originally belonged to the jurisdiction that created them (usually the county). Some counties moved records to another jurisdiction, while some established regional archives for the safekeeping of old records and other moved older records to state archives. Consult the NARA website and the Bureau of Land Management. You may view old records on microfilm and these can usually be ordered from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library. Search the FamilySearch Library Catalog under the topics for Land and Property. Another valuable source is published abstracts. First, check with the local or regional genealogical society in or near your county (or town) of interest. In addition, abstracts may also appear in periodicals. You can use the electronic version of the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) to search for abstracts. Many libraries have PERSI on CD-ROM or a subscription to or Heritage Quest that will allow you access to the database.

The following websites have references to online abstracted deed indexes:

Cyndi’s List


USGenWeb - Land Records

For Canadian land records, visit the Canadian Genealogy Centre website. Here you will find details regarding land petitions, provincial land records and Land Grants. There are online searchable databases for:

  • Lower Canada Land Petitions (1764-1841)
  • Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865)
  • Western Land Grants (1870-1930)

Tax Records

Women are listed on land tax records when they are the heads of household (e.g. the taxpayer). If a woman was single, widowed, or the sole heir to her parents’ estate, she would be listed on the tax rolls. Names on the early tax rolls are commonly listed in the respective order that houses appear on streets (similar to listings in the census, but only with street, head of household, and tax listed). Be sure to track tax records each year until you find the female no longer listed and note whether she died, was married, sold the property, or if a male now owns the described property. Using city directories in this task is helpful.

Probate and Guardianship Records

Typically wills include the names of the offspring of a couple. In the estate papers or will filed during probate, the surnames of the female children and possibly their husband’s names will be listed. Sometimes a man will include his mother’s name in his will, if he expects to die young and childless. For those who died intestate (without a will), check letters of administration. Guardianship records should be checked if parents die young. These will list the child’s age. The legal guardian is often a male relative. If the mother was still living, the court normally appointed a guardian, as the court operated under the premise that a woman was unable to tend to matters by herself.

For men who died intestate (without a will), look for letters of administration, which were granted if there was real or personal property to be distributed. These papers are usually found in the administration docket. If you find them, then check the real estate index for information about property that was to be divided or sold and for names of surviving heirs. If the letters of administration notes that the widow or other heirs renounced, to find their names ask the court clerk to check for the renunciation paper.

In Canada, Wills and Estate Files are the responsibility of the provinces and territories. Information and guidance in locating these records can be found on the Canadian Genealogy Centre’s website.

Always check everything under the woman’s husband’s name as well, because many times the woman is listed only under her husband’s records. It is also useful to research the records of siblings, and collateral lines in the family.

Military and Pension Records

Contrary to popular belief, women did serve in early wars and many women are documented in later ones. But you may also find documentation about a woman from her husband’s pension applications and military service records. Here are a few places to look for these records.

U.S. World War I Draft Cards

Every man born from 1872 to 1900 and living in the United States in 1917 and 1918 had to fill out a WWI draft registration card. The card typically lists the name, birthplace (including town, state, and country), country of citizenship, and whether he was naturalized.

Where to find them:

  • Libraries subscribing to Ancestry Library Edition
  • National Archives regional facilities
  • Family History Library and branch FamilySearch Centers

U.S. 1942 World War II Draft Registration Cards

The Fourth Registration—the only one currently open to the public (the others are restricted by privacy law)—happened April 27, 1942, and registered men born between April 28, 1877 and February 16, 1897 who were not already enlisted. Because the registrants were 45 to 64 years old, this is commonly referred to as the “old man’s registration.” In these records you will find such clues as town or country of birth and the name and address of a person, usually the wife, who will always know the registrant’s residence.

Search the cards online at:

  • Libraries subscribing to Ancestry Library Edition
  • FamilySearch Historical Record Collections (This website is being updated frequently; check back often.)

U.S. Revolutionary War and Civil War Records

Service and pension records from these wars contain details about early ancestors. If your ancestor served in a military unit (company or regiment), you should be able to find him on muster (attendance) rolls, which will give his name, and the date and place he enlisted and mustered in. Some records may show age, physical description, marital status, occupation, and place of birth or residence. Pension records usually contain more genealogical information than service records (but keep in mind that not all veterans applied for or received a pension).

Check these guides for more information:

  • Online Revolutionary War Indexes and Records
  • Handy Index Online Civil War Indexes, Records and Rosters: A Genealogy Guide

Where to find U.S. Revolutionary Service Records:

  • National Archives and Records Administration (microfilm or order copies online)
  • Major genealogical libraries (microfilm)
  • FamilySearch (Library Catalog - Keyword: Revolutionary War)
  • Fold3

Where to find U.S. Revolutionary War Pensions:

  • National Archives and Records Administration (microfilm or order copies online)
  • Major genealogical libraries (microfilm)
  • Family History Library (microfilm)
  • HeritageQuest Online (subscribing libraries only)

Fold3 has images of Revolutionary War pension and bounty-land warrant application files. These records are also on NARA microfilm M804.

Where to find U.S. Civil War Pensions:

  • National Archives and Records Administration: 1861-1917 index cards and applications (these records haven’t been microfilmed; order online or hire local researcher to obtain a copy)
  • Fold3 - index cards and applications of some veterans’ widows (Fold3 is digitizing the un-microfilmed National Archives records)
  • FamilySearch Record Search - Civil War Pension Index Cards
  • - Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934

For more on obtaining copies of U.S. military service records, see NARA’s website.

Information about women can also be found through other war societies. For example:

Daughters of the American Revolution

Society for Women and the Civil War

During World War II, many military men married women from the countries they were fighting in. These “War Brides” returned to their military husband’s home country to start a new life after the war ended. To find more information about War Brides see:

Canadian War Brides

Data Marine’s War Brides

Plymouth City Council - Australian War Brides

American War Bride Experience - GI Brides of World War II

Women’s Institutes and Organizations

Finally, consider what social or religious groups a woman may have belonged to through her church or community. For example, fraternal benefit societies, and consult their records for additional details. Many can be found online through a simple search with your favorite search engine or checking Cyndi’s List.

In the late 1800s, fraternal organizations became popular. Immigrants employed largely in difficult industrial occupations sought financial protection for their families. Fraternal and benevolent organizations provided insurance and camaraderie. At the turn of the 20th century, almost five million men and women belonged to fraternal organizations. Records of fraternal organizations contain personal information included in the membership application and death benefit claim forms: date and place of birth, names of parents and siblings, religion, profession, place of residence (at time of application), medical information and offices held in the organization. But note that some of the membership application forms may be incomplete.

Ask family members about societies your relatives belonged to and whether they have any associated documentation. Also look for photos of an individual wearing the group’s emblem, and jewelry, medals, china, gravestones, and stationery with insignia.

If the organization is still operating, contact the local chapter or national office to ask about historical publications. Look in the phone book or do an online search for active ethnic societies (such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, The First Catholic Slovak Union). Since the organizations are private, they’re not required to furnish you records. Few records are indexed, making research difficult. The Balch Institute (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, see), Immigrant History Research Center (University of Minnesota, see and Multicultural Canada) all have collections to research groups and organizations.

In Ontario, Canada, from around 1929, the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario began gathering information and local histories of their areas and producing them in book form known as the Tweedsmuir Histories. These histories often include information about the local Women’s Institute Branch, details about early settlers in the area, agricultural and industry information, social institutions including churches, schools, and community centers and more. Some of these wonderful books can be found online.

County of Elgin Women’s Institutes - Tweedsmuir Histories

Grey Roots Museum and Archives - For Home and Country: The Women’s Institutes of Grey County

There are Women’s Institutes in almost every province of Canada. In the U.K. there is the National Federation of Women’s Institutes.


Your female ancestor may show up in an article in the city or town newspaper. Search beyond the obituary section. For example, check the society pages for birth and wedding announcements, as well as other “notable” events. Early newspapers contained notices and stories of family separations due to desertions, divorces, immigrations, and unusual occurrences such as kidnappings, insolvencies, bankruptcies, and undeliverable letters at the post office. More and more newspapers are becoming available online through subscription services including:

In addition, online services, such as NewsLink and, will allow you to search for a particular publication online. You can also check with the reference librarian in the locale where your female ancestor lived to determine which newspapers and respective years are available. Always check all newspapers for a locality. Also, check library and historical society collections, as well as published town histories and anniversary celebration programs. Two excellent collections are:

Kansas Historical Society - Newspapers
U.S. Newspaper Program


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.