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Published December 13, 1999

Women in Your Tree, Part VII - Become a detective on the trail of your female ancestors
By Sandra Devlin

This nine part series was the winning entry in the 2000 Online Columns/Articles category of the Council of Genealogy Columnists (since renamed the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors). The award was presented at the National Genealogy Society annual convention in Providence, Rhode Island, USA

Some times you have to become a Sherlock Holmes to successfully track your elusive female ancestors. This is the seventh column in a series of exploring the avenues which could help solve the Case of Your Missing Grandma, great-grandma, et al.

Until more recent times, women in Canadian society were quite content to be referred as Mrs. Husband’s Given Name, Husband’s Surname. So even finding a given name can pose a problem for women of the past who led particularly sheltered or obscure lives.

But be not dismayed, there are many oddball places, some not conventionally genealogical,where a given name might turn up for Mrs. John Doe.

Land Recordscan be the most direct and often successful line of attack to discovering your female ancestor’s given name. If you know only two things: a husband’s name and the couple’s exact place of residence, you can embark on a voyage of discovery at your land registry office.

While pioneer women had minimum legal rights and it was 1929 before they were recognized as persons under the law in Canada, women did have dower rights from the earliest times. Consequently it was often necessary in legalizing a sale of land for the justice of the peace to establish that the wife relinquished “all and singular right of dower ... of her own free will and accord and without any threat or compulsion from her said husband.”

Still in court, but on a different track, revealing evidence about your female ancestor might turn up in the Boston States, even if she never set foot off Canadian soil or ventured much farther afield than the village store. Some of the logical indirect sources are probably self evident -- probate records for relatives who left the Maritimes to live in Boston and surrounding areas and left your female ancestor a piece of their estate years later, for instance. But a more direct source could be a divorce record. I have no direct experience with this, but the following clipping from a Maritime newspaper in 1935 suggests there are likely lots of state-side records containing information, particularly about women back home.

Quote attributed to Judge Adam G. Fullonson in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
    “During the past few years and especially during the past few months our divorce courts have been practically flooded with divorce petitions filed by persons who have left Canada and resided here only the scant three years required by our laws seeking their freedom from mates still residing in dominion, many of whom are the parents of unfortunate and innocent children and unable to come here and defend their own character .. I want to serve warning ... that such cases will not be tolerated by this court in the future. And I hope that my attitude will leak back to Canada, especially to the Maritime Provinces where a great many of these petitioners come from ...”
Still thinking about court records, if your ancestors fought among themselves, and their legal battles touched on significant principles of law; published law reports may prove to be a valuable genealogy research tool. Pre-1900 reports are richer in genealogy information than reports of more recent years, according to Jonathan Davidson’s detailed article about law reports in The Nova Scotia Genealogist, Summer 1994 issue. Law reports are found in universities which teach law. Dalhousie Law Library in Halifax, N.S. has a complete set of publicly accessible law reports for the Maritime provinces.

Another place you might not think to look are the provincial Acts of the General Assembly through which it was sometimes necessary to legitimize an unlawful marriage.This example comes from the March 20, 1896 New Brunswick volume:
    the marriage solemnized between the said Israel Isaacs and Carrie Hart, on the fifth day of September, A. D. 1883, by the said Mark Jacob Hamburger, at the City of Saint John in the City and County of Saint John, shall be, and is hereby declared to be, legal ... [and furthermore] ... Rebecca D. Isaacs, Alice D. Isaacs and Rae S. Isaacs, children born to the said Israel Isaac and Carrie his wife, since the date of the said marriage, are the legitimate ...”
The Acts of the General Assembly, under the “Other” categories contain all sorts of amusing and informative tidbits, many of which could lead directly or indirectly to the identity or information about a female ancestor.

Continuing on the subject of discovering the given name of a female ancestor, at the turn of the last century and well into the mid-1900s there was a tradition of piecing autograph quilts for church or community fund raising. An individual’s name, sometimes even their signature, was embroidered on the quilt for a donation of a nickel, dime or quarter. Some particularly fine examples have survived and are found in local museums. Often one square of a quilt contained the names of a family group, and happily the wife’s own given name was frequently used.

Women-only clubs, lodges and organizations were also commonplace in the same period and it was a standard practice to keep minutes. Meeting at the homes of a different hostess for each meeting, they formed committees, elected executives, performed skits and conducted teas or sponsored lectures in aid of charitable causes.

Wars prompted even more organized activities for women like work for the Red Cross where busy hands would knit, sew or roll bandages, assemble comfort packages for overseas soldiers containing toiletries, warm socks, handkerchiefs and other reminders of home. All the while, they kept records -- who knit what, how many bolts of cotton were bought and distributed and so on. While some minutes continued to identify a woman as a mere extremity of her husband, Mrs. Fred Steeves, and the like -- it was often necessary to distinguish one Mrs. Fred Steeves from another Mrs. Fred Steeves.

This identity problem was solved in various ways by creative secretaries, and often in ways which still linked the women to their husbands -- a useful habit to genealogists who read the original records. One might become Mrs. Fred Steeves (Charlotte), while the other was Mrs. Fred Steeves (Liz); Sr. or Jr. might also be used and are helpful. Another colourful tradition was also used in rural Maritime communities where many people shared a common name like MacDonald and many of the males had equally common given names like James, John and Robert. The “little woman” almost immediately after marriage was given her own unique nickname - often a combination of their two given names like Mary-Bob, and she became known by that name for the rest of her living days.

I urge researchers to read original copies of minutes whenever possible, whether they be for clubs, church session reports or the like. Women were not only marginalized figuratively in society, they were also marginalized literally in record books, sometimes by the original record keeper, sometimes by a person who read the pages at a later date. I have personally seen examples of these many times. Beside a female maiden name, a pencilled-in comment in the margin -- so and so’s wife, so-and-so’s daughter, mother, sister, even so-and-so’s grandmother. Also other clues turn up “went to Boston States 1897” or “died of Spanish influenza, 1918.”

The moral of this lesson is to try to locate every possible original record of the time period and place of research interest. Never restrict yourself only to birth, marriage or death registers; probate files or other traditional primary sources. And, even with the traditional sources, consult every record -- county registers and provincial registers kept by civil authorities and also the church records of the same event - marriage, birth, death. One of them might have that vital extra tidbit which finally unravels your mystery.

I have also found in membership lists -- clubs, churches and whatever -- women are often listed in relationship clusters. While it is not always clear from the list what the exact relationship is -- you can develop some theories and test them against other findings.

In my ongoing, longstanding quest to establish the parentage of my great-great-great grandmother Rhoda (Constantine) Mills, I have every reason to suspect she came to Moncton, N.B. in 1813 from Newport, N.S. and was the daughter of James and Elizabeth (Mosher) Constantine, the only Constantine family living in the immediate vicinity in the late 1790s. A Pharez Constantine, very probably Rhoda’s brother, did come to Moncton “from Newport” (that tidbit was a postscript notation in the church records) and married Mary Mills, a sister to Rhoda’s husband Peter. A William Constantine later married a Eunice Mills of nearby Salisbury, N.B. -- circumstantial evidence suggests William was the youngest sibling of Pharez and Rhoda; and that Eunice Mills was a daughter of Peter and Mary’s eldest brother David.

Some years later in the church files, a margin note says Amy and Harriett Mills (daughters of Peter and Rhoda) “went to Windsor, N.S.” -- that being very near to Newport, begs the question, did they go to visit or live with Constantine relatives there?

It is all so tantalizing. Are there any other clues? Well, maybe!

On the early church membership list (circa 1829) for First United Baptist Church in Moncton, the name above my Rhoda Mills is Catherine Greeno. Greeno was a common surname in the Newport area of the day, and extremely rare if not entirely unheard of in the Westmorland County area at the time. I am convinced that because of the proximity of these two names on the church list and the Greeno link to Newport, that this is a vital clue for me. Time will tell.

So the second lesson from the Epistle according to Devlin is: Go beyond simply “reading” primary records -- “study” them, put yourself inside the record keeper’s head and attribute them with a character trait widespread among our ancestors -- common sense.

Put yourself into the setting of the Women’s Missionary Society meetings, as you “study” the recorded minutes.

“Roll call was answered with a favourite verse of Scripture by ...” (the list of women in attendance.) This same phrase is repeated in the minutes for every meeting. Study it to discover who was sitting next to or grouped with whom at every meeting. If Mrs. John Harper and Mrs. William Steadman consistently sat together; if they repeatedly quoted Scripture verses from the same Bible chapter; if both were absent from the same meetings or if one is found assisting the other when it was the her turn to be hostess -- there are reasonable grounds to form a theory of relationship. Were they simply best friends and next-door neighbours? Were they sisters? Mother and daughter?

These are the extreme to which you must sometimes go to identify or learn new details about your female ancestors and their lives.

You may think you have exhausted every avenue and have yet to “study” the family photo album which is likely full of clues about your aunts, female cousins and female in-laws. Building from the folks you can positively identify, you may be able to deduce relationships from other photos with a little extra careful investigation.

Even in those photographs which do not have identification, if you can pinpoint landmarks, household heirlooms or even their automobiles in the background, you can peg unidentified people to a particular family. In my husband’s grandmother’s family, I swear they took all of their family reunion photos in the exact same spot, year after year ... there in the background is that same familiar, distinctive, lone elm tree.

The same grandmother, Phemie Grace (Geer) Devlin, struck a pose with her head tilted slightly to the left whenever she had her photo taken. I noticed this one day after studying the family photos for some time, and ever since have been able to instantly spot her in a shot.

Take out the magnifying glass to study photos even more closely. Doing this I have been able to read the inscription on a silver tray, clearly identify a license plate number and, best of all, read the inscription on a photo of a gravestone which not only revealed the name of a female cousin in England, but also the name of her faithful dog. Before you leave that graveyard photo, take a look at the off-centre gravestones -- could be another relative, or at the very least a clue to help pinpoint the cemetery’s location, if unknown.

In a boxful of unidentified photos from my late mother-in-law’s belonging there is a photo with a caption written in fountain pen on the back which is enough to drive any sane genealogy buff over the edge. The photo and clothing vintage suggests late 1940s, early ‘50s. Three women dressed to the nines (maybe at a wedding or funeral?) are frozen in time; two standing, one seated in front. The caption reads: “Three cousins, daughters of three sisters: Flo Schilling, Maud Marshall and yours truly.”

For all the avenues of discovery, there remain and probably always will, a mystery or two which you want to solve more than any other. This is one of mine.

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