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Female Ancestors: Finding Women in Local History and Genealogy


Wedding ceremony / Perry, Allegheny, Pa. Between 1890-1930. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The county courthouse and local government offices in your ancestor's community are among the most important repositories to become familiar with as you conduct your research investigation. Laws at the time and place in which your female ancestor lived will determine what types of records were required and how she may be represented. Become acquainted with as many of these record sets as possible.

As you discover applicable entries, request access to both docket books and paper files. Often these formats compliment rather than duplicate one another. One may be easier to read or be more complete. A page missing from a paper file may be transcribed into a docket book. A docket book may refer to exhibits that exist only in the paper file.

Also, keep an open mind about the realities of her circumstances, so that you do not miss any clues in unexpected places.

The following categories are just some of the records you may find:

Adoptions / Guardianships

Obviously important for proving parent/child relationships, these records can reveal significant clues about everyone involved. Do not limit your exploration of these records only to orphans. Guardianships were often established to protect the estate of a minor child, who may have had one or both parents living. Guardianships could also be implemented for individuals of any age, if the court decreed them to be incompetent in some way.


The vitals (names of child and parents, birth date and place, etc.) are the clear takeaways, but also pay attention to the context and circumstances. Who was the informant? How much time passed between the date of birth and the date of record? Has the record ever been amended? Do all fields align with corresponding research? For example, some birth records may specify the number of children a woman had borne and notate this child’s number in the birth order. If so, can you account for all of the children indicated? Since birth records are documents that decisively involve the mother, take the opportunity to scrutinize every field that may offer biographical details about her. We often must learn about women through the records of their relatives.

Civil Court

Civil court proceedings may include such cases as divorce, lawsuits, and lunacy. In any type of court record involving women, look to see how she is represented. Law generally regarded married women like minor children or the insane; therefore, she typically had to be accompanied by a husband, guardian, or a “next friend.” This is an instance when we must study the men to learn about the women. Investigate such men for clues to the women. The same strategy applies to all persons involved in the case.

Criminal Court

Criminal court proceedings may include fornication and bastardy cases that identify potential parents for children born outside of marriage. These records are critical because under some circumstances, they may be the only documentation of a potential birth father’s identity. As with civil cases, the circumstances of the court case itself—no matter the nature—are only part of the story. Dig into every individual named and explore any contextual clues.


Like birth records, the vitals are obviously key, but don’t miss the opportunity to learn from every field. What were the circumstances? Are there corresponding records such as coroner reports, court cases, newspaper articles, burial records, etc.? Where and with whom was she residing? Who was the informant? If a mother died in or closely following childbirth, is there a birth or death record, bastardy case, or guardianship for the child?


Deeds generally tell us when and where our ancestors lived or owned land; describe their property; identify their neighbors; and potentially reveal family relationships. For women, we must pay attention to law regarding dower rights. A dower right is the provision that would be taken from the husband's estate to provide for a widow and children. Depending on the law at that time and place, in order for a married couple to sell land, the wife may have had to release her dower right.


Colonial or state law dictated whether or not a divorce could be granted; upon what grounds and terms; and by which entity – legislature or court. As with all record categories, it is necessary to research the law at the time and place to determine where to look for records. These documents often include very particular information about the circumstances of our female ancestors, including proof of the marriage, children born to the marriage, and the conditions that led to the divorce proceedings.


Another vital record with clearly relevant fields, marriage files may have much more to offer than names and dates. This is a critical record to the identity and biography of a woman. Do not settle for just the final certificate. Ask for the entire file.

  • Mine every field. Who performed the wedding? Were the parties previously married? Were the parties related?
  • Scrutinize the details. Did the bride and groom lie about their ages? Did they travel from home to marry?
  • Examine the law. What was the age of consent? Was a parent or guardian’s signature required?

Voter Registration and Poll Taxes

It is critical to know what the requirements to vote were in the areas where your female ancestors lived. What were the laws and circumstances in her community? Did women in her state receive suffrage prior to the 19th Amendment? Did she have to pass a literacy test? Did she have to pay a poll tax? If she does not show up on the voter rolls, is there a reason beyond her personal choice?

Wills and Estates

Wills are revered records because they often clearly identify family members’ names and relationships, but a Will is just one part of the process to settle an estate. For ancestors who did not leave Wills, the estate file may prove to be just as informative. In either scenario, we must follow the probate records to discover every clue: administrator or executor accounts; partitions and sales of real estate; guardian appointments; estate distributions; and so on.

  • How much time passed between the date a Will was written and the date of death? By the time of the estate distribution children who were minors when the Will was written may be grown and married. This may provide new clues for married daughters or daughters-in-law.
  • As with Deeds, pay attention to law regarding dower rights and inheritance. What entitlements did the women in the family have to the estate?

Selected Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Explore the individual state guides created by Library of Congress subject specialists to determine what records exist for your community and where you can find them. A customized table highlighting the most common county courthouse records used by genealogists is included for each state along with specific references to the particular local offices that maintain them in each jurisdiction.

You can also study the complete list of Local History & Genealogy research guides for even more ideas.

State Resources:


Across the country, courthouse records are gradually being digitized for preservation and access. It is well worth examining the popular subscription databases, such as those listed below, as well as individual county courthouse, state archives, and other community websites to determine if your ancestor's hometown has gone digital. However, do not limit yourself to online resources only. It will take time, funding, and coordination to get records online.

Always follow up with the county offices directly to determine what has been scanned and what you still need to view in person or request to be copied. A quick reference to locate local records is the Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources External. Online guides such as FamilySearch Wiki External are also great tools for tracking down available records in particular places.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.