Monday, 10 November 2014

Researching the Forgotten Side of Your Family Tree

My Grandmothers Edna Palin and Christina Lee
Firstly, please let me apologise for not posting last month.  Family commitments fully occupied my time last month and my blogging was unfortunately, put on the back burner.

As some of you may know, one of my blogging sites, “The other half of my tree – stories of my female ancestors” is an attempt to record the stories of the women in my family.  I thought I would share how I approach gathering all the little tit bits that can be pieced together to build an understanding of your grandmother, great grandmothers or great aunt’s story. As we all know, due to many social and financial circumstances, piecing together their history is much more difficult to that of their male counterparts. Often our family tree is traced back through the male branches and the female branches are neglected or put aside as being too difficult.

How do you unravel the history of the females in your family tree?  I think the key to discovering the stories related to your female ancestors is to rethink your approach to researching, using clues in different ways.  It helps to expand your area of research by looking outside her immediate family and start to develop a knowledge of her community. This month, I plan to follow on from my previous post on using Excel Time line as a tool, and expand some of the research methods that can be useful to fill in the gaps on your female ancestors time line. 

1. Birth, Death and Marraige Records - The first and most important place to start with are birth, marriage and death records.  Examine these thoroughly for all details.  These can provide, information on her parents, where they lived, and their occupation. Carefully check the witnesses signatures, as these can also provide clues to close relations or friends, and by researching these names you can come across more information about your female ancestor.  An example of this is: my great great grandmother Emma Weston.  One of the witnesses on her marriage certificate was Mary Ann Weston, after a little research I found that Mary Ann was Emma's sister.  Then after obtaining Mary Ann's wedding certificate I found that one of the signatures was Alfred Weston, this clue led me to discover that Alfred Weston was Emma and Mary Ann's uncle and that he had sponsored their trip from London on the "Kate" in 1856.

2. Immigration Records - These can provide details of parents, where they lived before immigrating, and their age.  In the case of Mary Ann and Emma Weston their immigration record also provides information about their occupation, their religion and that their passage of ten shillings was paid by their Uncle Alfred Weston.

3. Census Record - These will give provide details of their address, other family members, occupation, if she attended school and parent's occupation. If your female ancestor has a name that is difficult to search for eg Mary or Anne, you can search for one of her siblings with a more unusual name to  trace family movements and events. Also when searching census records, it is a good idea to check the pages before and after your ancestors record, as quite often you will find the records of other members of the family who live nearby. The census record will also give you an indication of the your ancestors social circumstances, ie, parents and neighbour's occupations, if there are servants listed on the record, and sometimes there is an indication of land ownership and if there any workers under their employ.

4.  Naming patterns - The names of children often will provide clues to parents names. It is common for the first child is names after one of her grandmothers and often a child’s middle name is the mother’s maiden name. I often wondered why my Nanna was called Christina Sterland Lee, as I couldn't find any link to the name Sterland.  Then when I was researching her mothers branch of the family tree I discovered that her aunt Christina Sterland (nee McGregor) passed away a couple of months before she was born, and obviously she had been named after her Aunt.

Headstones can be a valuable source of information
5. Cemeteries - These can provide proof of burial, and often also provide the date of birth.  Family members buried nearby may provide details of her maiden name, names of children and links to other members of her family. It is quite likely that if she was buried in a church yard or denominational section of the cemetery that she was a member of that church's congregation.  Further searching of the church records may provide you with more information on her marriage and baptism. For example in the picture of the gravestone here, the maiden names for David McNair's wife Marion Taylor and his mother Annie Simpson are listed on the tombstone, as well as information about other members of the family.

6. Wills and Probate Records - can provide information on widows, daughters and grandchildren, including names, addresses and inherited property.

7. Newspapers - can be a valuable source of information when researching women, especially articles in smaller local papers.  Looking for obituaries or your ancestor, or her husband, parents and children can also provide more information about the person you are researching.  By searching the names of the ships that your ancestor immigrated on in the newpapers, can also be rewarding.  In the case of Emma and Mary Ann Weston, I searched for the ship on their immigration record, the "Kate"  in Trove and was able to find a couple of references to the arrival of the "Kate" into Sydney Harbour just before Christmas in 1856.

8.  Stories from family members - Take the time to listen and take notes of family stories, these can often provide a valuable clue that can link you to more information. If you have old photos, consult with older family members, often a picture can trigger a memory.  A few years ago I met my great Aunt in Adelaide, and took down a couple of pages of notes detailing some of the stories that she had told me.  Earlier this year, when reading through my notes again I noticed I had written down that my great grandmother  Caroline Hornhardt had downed.  Using this clue, I searched for a drowning in Adelaide around the time of her death, and was rewarded with a number of articles outlining the circumstances of her death.

Family Bible and Letters
9. Family Bibles,Diaries, Postcards and Letters -  If you are lucky enough to be able to source family bibles, diaries/journals and or letters, they can be a valuable source of social and genealogical history. Families often recorded important family dates in their bibles.  Diaries and letters can provide an insight into the feelings, emotions, and relationships of your female family members. They can provide you with important information on dates, places visited, addresses, how they feel about events and an insight into their culture and social history.  Postcards, and letters can give you a sense of how your ancestors feel at the time of deaths, births or war, perhaps they may provide you with a clue to an admirer or close family friend.

10. Military Service - if you female ancestor served as a nurse you can search the military records for information on where she served.  Also, by searching the military records of your ancestors husband or son you can find in their record details of mother or widow, with copies of telegrams/letters notifying of death and pension records.

Family picture taken after a funeral
11. Photos - These not only give us a visual image of our ancestor, but can also tell us so much more.By carefully examining the picture, you can read the body language between those in the picture. How are your ancestors are dressed can indicate the importance of the occasion, their economic circumstances, their occupation etc. Buildings in the picture can provide clues to where they lived, worshipped, worked or their leisure activities. Always remember to check anything written on the back of the photo as well.

Putting together the story of your female ancestor's provides an interesting challenge and involves using combination of the traditional genealogical records such as birth, death and marriage records along with their social history which can be sourced from a myriad of resources such as those outlined in this blog.  By collecting all this data into a timeline, you will be able to put together a clearer picture of your grandmother, great grandmother or great aunt's life.


  1. An Interesting and informative post that complemented so well my October contribution on researching my great great great grandmother.

  2. Great post, thank you for the good job on summary.

  3. Thanks for the kind comments, Sue, I must confess that I have had such a stressful month that, I hadn't had time to read everyone's blog. I just read yours now, what a lovely story, and what a coincidence that I wrote something on a similar theme. Like you I really enjoy the challenge of fitting all the little bits of information together to get a feeling for our ancestors lives.

  4. I'm another fan of getting a feel for how our ancestors lived as well as who they were. And like you, I've struggled with the female lines. Thanks for the great tips!

  5. Diane,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  6. Thanks for the mention. I always enjoy reading through your fab finds list,


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World Wide Genealogy Team