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Article posted: December 15, 1998

Searching For a Female Ancestor
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles

One of the interesting developments in family history is a sidelight grown from the joint prominence of genealogy and feminism. This is the emphasis on finding out about women ancestors.

The large national conferences in the United States always have a few lectures on finding information about women. The Ontario Genealogical Society’s annual seminar in 2000 (in Ottawa) will include a stream on this subject.

Some people might suggest that there is no difference between looking for male ancestors than female ones. There is, however, the fact that when we encounter a woman ancestor for the first time, she has a name different from what she was born with. To do any satisfactory work with her lineage after that requires that we first discover her own name. This is usually done through a marriage record, although there are a great many other sources which will reveal the answer.

A new book by a leading American genealogist examines not only the various sources we can use to find out more about women ancestors, but also suggests some interesting new ways to think about them. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors, by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack has the lengthy subtitle “Special strategies for uncovering hard-to-find information about your female lineage”.

To begin with, Carmack does not bother with the sources you can find in any genealogical handbook. She knows that most researchers will have looked there already. Instead, she asks, “What kinds of documents are women more likely to have created than men?” Her answers produce some of the most interesting resources available to us.

Letters, diaries, journals and family heirlooms all fall into this category. She discusses what they reveal and how to use them genealogically as well as simply for pleasure and information.

She then asks what the more usual genealogical sources have to say about women in particular. For example, when did city directories begin to include married women as well as their husbands? (In the 1920s.)

If a child is assigned a guardian by the courts, does that mean the mother as well as the father is dead? (No.) She gives a wide variety of case studies, which I think most genealogists will find fun as well as informative. She also suggests the kind of topics you might want to think about when you are writing a family history which tries to include brief biographies of female individuals.

This last section has caused some controversy among those who prefer their family histories to contain only facts, with no attempt to set people in their context of place and history. While I agree that utter fantasy must be excluded from family history, I think that Carmack’s suggestion that we interpret documents as well as report them is a good one.

Discovering Your Female Ancestors (the short version of the title), by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is available from at 613-257-7878 or click here for more information.

Cyndi Howells’ website, Cyndi’s List, began a new section on Female Ancestors in October. You can see it at

Early Immigrants - Why Did They Come?

During Michael Gandy's visit to Ottawa in September, he talked about common genealogical legends and why they don't apply. One interesting point concerned the one about how somebody's ancestor was the younger son of the aristocracy sent out to make his fortune.

Gandy told us that the aristocracy had plenty of money even for its younger sons and that they didn't need to come to North America to try to make a pile. The ones that did were usually looking for adventure, not money.

In my own recent work on pioneer life 1820-1850 I found that many single young men chose to emigrate because they thought a life of "huntin', shootin' and fishin' in the wilderness was more fun than staying at home". While many of them did come, a great many also went home again when the cold and mosquitoes became too much. Numbers also succumbed to boredom, which was usually alleviated by smoking and drinking too much.


One of the reason for doing genealogy is to see how our ancestors lived. The most dramatic experience was emigrating across the ocean, but how much do we know about what it was like? It would be terrific to hear an actual emigrant describe the trip.

Clearing A Road In Early Upper Canada Across the Waters: Ontario Immigrants' Experiences, 1820-1850
by Frances Hoffman and Ryan Taylor gathers together selections from firsthand accounts so that today's readers can discover what it meant to be a pioneer in Ontario. From the day they decided to strike off across the Atlantic to the first harvest in their own clearing, the settlers will tell you about the seasickness, the quarantine station, the mosquitoes--the fish you could scoop out of streams with your bare hands, the pride of owning your own land and the joys of helping one another build a house.

Hoffman's and Taylor's previous book, Much to be Done, gave diarists from the Victorian era the chance to tell us about their lives. Their new book offers the same opportunity to those diarists' parents and grandparents.

Across the Waters: Ontario Immigrants' Experiences, 1820-1850 will be published in March 1999 ( originally planned for May '99) by Global Heritage Press in softcover and hard cover (library binding) versions. Reserve your copy today!.

Books By Ryan Taylor

Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.

Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997

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Norway Bay United & Anglican Cemetery
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The Merivale Cemeteries
(Protestant - Ottawa area)