Monday, March 28, 2016

Women's History Month 2016: Tip #27 Researching Before 1850

Like too many women, this photo is of an unidentified woman. George Eastman House. Flickr the Commons
What's one of your least favorite research tasks? For many people, it's researching families before 1850. Government documents like the U.S. Federal Census are all but quiet in documenting women’s lives prior to 1850. So what’s a family historian to do? Here’s a few ideas:

Start with the familiar
What sources do you consistently turn to as you research your family history? You may have a list of favorite subscription and free websites that you use at the start of every research project. As with any research, start your pre-1850 search with familiar sources like FamilySearch.

Let's use the FamilySearch Catalog as an example. The Catalog allows you to search by author, title, place, surname and keyword. Once you have noted all the resources available for the place she lived in, conduct a keyword search. Choose terms like “colonial women” or “Quaker women” to describe an ancestor. 

In the Catalog's keyword search you can find collections that document women’s lives. Some examples include:

•  Women's and men's minutes, 1730-1778 by Society of Friends. Nottingham Monthly Meeting 

As you research some of your favorite websites consider searching differently such as using the website's subject or card catalog in addition to searching by surname. Consider what collections or databases your ancestor might be named in and search that individual collection. 

Consider her activities
What types of activities could your female ancestor have taken part in? Was she a member of a church? Did she join an organization?  Learning more about the time period and place she lived in can provide important clues to what records documented her life. Groups recorded their activities whether by creating membership lists, meeting notes, treasurer’s reports, that document their activities. In some cases these collections were either retained by the organization and may be available from that group if they still exist or were donated to an archive.

As you research remember that researching the ancestor’s community is crucial in your research. As with any research consider her FAN club. Genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills reminds us that every ancestor had a FAN club (Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors). Search for manuscripts left by your ancestor’s FANs housed in archives, libraries, and museums for mentions of your ancestor. Search these catalogs by the name of the town she lived in to find everything written by those who lived in that place.

Catalogs to search include ArchiveGrid, and the repositories in the place your ancestor lived, such as university special collections. In some cases a regional catalog might assist you in searching. Examples from the western states include Online Archive California, Archives West, Rocky Mountain Online Archive, Texas Archival Resources Online, Arizona Archives Online, and Mountain West Digital Library

Expand your Research
When researching a female ancestor it’s vital to take a look at the men in her life. As you get further back year wise in your genealogy, it can be important to focus on the family unit instead of solely on an individual. Focusing on a family can provide you with more options and information.  

Reconstructing that family may also reveal associates who have migrated and interacted with the family. It is through these men that you might fill in the details of a woman’s life. Mentions in military pensions, a will, or probate papers  can provide valuable clues.

Start with a timeline for her husband’s or father’s life. Then identify documents that he should appear in. Look through these documents for mentions of family members. Consult the FamilySearch Catalog for court records for the place your ancestor lived.  Military records and pensions prior to 1850 will be available from the National Archives  or online through  websites like or Fold3.

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