SALT LAKE CITY — For RootsTech presenter Judy G. Russell, finding female ancestors is a hunt for untold stories as much as it is about filling in genealogical gaps.
In her class at RootsTech on Feb. 4 titled “Mothers, Daughters, Wives: Tracing Female Lines,” she taught a brief history of women’s rights, a timeline in America that echoes British common law throughout the years.
“Women are the hardest to find because of their changing surnames. It is not their fault that they are nothing more than tick marks in the censuses before 1930,” Russell said.
From Abigail Adams’ pleas to her husband, John, to “remember the ladies,” to the startling property and voting laws that sometimes still exist, this context helps to frame a common problem for genealogists everywhere: Where are the women?
“How does she appear in the records of her menfolk?” Russell asked. She defended the women of ages past by explaining their circumstances.
“She couldn’t engage in a contract, and her wages and property could be taken by her husband or his creditors,” Russell said.
Russell told stories of women that could only be found by reading between the lines. For example, a woman’s death certificate made it clear that she had purposely overdosed on laudanum, but only by seeking out other documents about the woman’s life could genealogists find out that the overdose was triggered by the death of a son.
Another woman, a widow, applied to receive her husband’s pension for his participation in the Mexican-American War, only to find out that he had lied to her about his service. When read with a trained eye, typical documents tell their stories, Russell said.
Russell has found many answers in uncommon documents and advises a thorough search of all possible sources even after the maiden name has been found.
Records of what Russell called “military bounty land,” for instance, document the land given to women when their husbands were killed in war. While military records are often considered strictly for the men, hundreds of women also served in the Civil War and received documented pensions as well.
Court records, “sign-offs,” school records, newspaper articles and legislative petitions are all seldom-used documents that can prove invaluable in the search for mothers, daughters, wives and sisters, Russell said.