JOY OF GENEALOGY: Five tips for finding elusive...
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Aug 16, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

JOY OF GENEALOGY: Five tips for finding elusive female ancestors

York Guardian

We all have at least one – that female ancestor who appears to have left no trail, or a very slim one at best. But with a bit of research and some extra sleuthing, you might find her hiding in plain sight – if you know where to look.

1) Back To School

A great place to search for late 19th and early 20th century women is at school. Many times when those old schools were closed or consolidated, the information followed the students and teachers to the new school. Check with local historical groups to find out where that material could have ended up. Also, if your female relative went to university, or lived close to one, look for yearbooks from local schools and the surrounding area. Check photos to see if she was captured in a picture attending a dance or dinner. (FYI: Mount Allison University in New Brunswick was the first to allow women to attend classes in 1862.)

2) Working Girl

Although the majority of our female family members were described as housewives, it wasn’t that unusual for women to hold a paying job to help the family out. Women have worked as servants since the 1500s, earning money to send back home. In the 1750s, women were employed in large numbers by textile factories. Women have worked as shoemakers, dressmakers, seamstresses, sales clerks, domestics and teachers. It wasn’t until 1870 that women were employed in the federal public service. Also, if you discover that a male relative couldn’t work, start sleuthing around to discover what your female ancestor was doing to support the family. You may be surprised at her ingenuity.

3) Bosom Buddies

Our women ancestors were just as social as we are, only in a different way. Maybe your girl joined (or formed) a group for neighborhood women to take part in. (Think a quilting circle, a book club or an women’s auxiliary organization.) What churches were nearby? She might have been a member and taken part in the dinners and other activates that would be listed in church bulletins. Check and see who witnessed her marriage, what other families traveled with her’S when they moved to a new location? These other “hidden women” were her friends, and their ancestors may have a wealth of knowledge about her life that you never knew. Also check with libraries, museums and archives to see if anything was written about her.

4) Follow the (News)Paper Trail

If you know where your ancestor lived (and moved to if she was mobile), be sure to check newspaper within 80 kilometres of her home. Most local papers in the 19th and 20th centuries had sections where hometown news was written about indepth. You might find a birth announcement, marriage write-up, obituary or personal story about your ancestor, her husband or other family members that will add great detail to your research. Since these folks had a tendency to attend functions in nearby towns, scope out other area papers. Her name, or that of her husband, may be listed in an unlikely place.

5) Take a Vote

In 1791, the Constitution Act allowed all people who owned property the right to vote. If your female relative inherited or purchased property between 1879 and 1849, she may be on the roles. In 1849, all Canadian women were denied the right to vote until 1921 when women were again eligible to vote; all women except those of colour, including the Chinese. These women were not granted the right to cast a ballot until the late 1940s. In fact, not all women were equally allowed to vote until 1960 when Aboriginal women were also included.

Remember, the lives of these women were as rich in detail as ours; just not as well documented so the search may be difficult, but not impossible. Keep looking – she’s out there.

--- Joy Neighbors writes the weekly cemetery culture blog, A Grave Interest and speaks on history, genealogy and folklore around the country. Find her on twitter @aGraveInterest or Facebook at

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