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April 28, 2023

How To Find the Women in Your Family Tree

By Ann Grilliot, Genealogy & Local History Coordinator

Mother’s Day is approaching, and that has me thinking of the women in my life.

My paternal grandmother, Alice Landström Stephan, and me, Ann Stephan Grilliot

On both sides of my lineage, the family stories have been passed on through the women. They have been the historians and archivists — the folks that preserved the photographs and artifacts and made sure that the next generation knew the significance of those items.

My paternal grandmother passed along many of her stories about growing up in a Swedish immigrant family in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. There was a strong Swedish community there that supported a Swedish language Methodist church, as well as her father’s grocery store and uncle’s hardware store.

My mother was a great companion on many of my research adventures, even when it wasn’t about her family! Her sister, my Aunt Louise, kept the family photos and obituary clippings from the newspapers. She also had many family documents: marriage and birth certificates, wills, and cookbooks. At my mother’s funeral, my cousin presented me with a huge banker’s box of documents, passing along the mantle of family historian. It’s two years later, and I’m still finding clues and making discoveries from those contents.

I find this especially fascinating as formal education was often put aside by my female ancestors in order to earn a living or help with the family. Both of my grandmothers could read and write (very well, I still have their letters) and made it through eighth grade, but I don’t believe either one graduated from high school. That was the early 1920s. I know my great-great-great-grandmother couldn’t write. When she sold the bounty lands that her husband was awarded as a pension for his service in the War of 1812, her signature is only a crooked “X” with her name written in below by the clerk.

Tracing female ancestors is also difficult because they had so few rights. Did you know that women couldn’t have credit cards unless they had a male co-signer up until the 1970s? Women were often legally restricted and not allowed to own property, operate businesses, or make legal decisions. That rules out many of a genealogist’s primary source documents for tracing ancestors.

One example of common genealogy records are immigration and naturalization records. Naturalization rules varied and were frequently tied to the husband’s status. If a man became a U.S. citizen, then his spouse became one. There were cases of the reverse as well, where women born in the U.S. lost their citizenship when they married immigrants. For more details on women and naturalization, see this article by Marian L. Smith from the National Archives website.

My own great-grandmother used the letter pictured below to travel internationally in 1902 since she was naturalized through her marriage and would have only had a joint passport with my great-grandfather.

“On the 20th Day of June 1900, I became the wife of said Carl Werner Landstrom and with my marriage I became a citizen of the United States of America. I, Hilda Marie Landstrom, verify this to be the truth and nothing but the truth, have entered this country on three different times on my husband’s naturalization paper after visits in Sweden. Most Respectfully, Hilda Marie Landstrom”


How do you work around these limits? What are some of the avenues you can use to research women? Please join us at Genealogy Advisory Board on Thursday, May 11 at 2:30pm in the Noblesville Library to share your brick walls and research triumphs finding the women in your family tree. GAB or the Genealogy Advisory Board is a quarterly meeting to get together to learn something new, get feedback on search strategies, and help fellow genealogy buffs.

The Crossroads Discovery Center/Indiana Room staff is also available to help with our resources. We are currently located on the main floor of the Noblesville Library.


Here are some sources to help in finding the women in your tree:

Ancestry Library Edition
Genealogy database that is only available within the Fishers or Noblesville libraries.


Family Tree Magazine
Print issues available in the Noblesville Library


Library of Congress Research Guide: Female Ancestors


Genealogist Amy Johnson Crow’s podcast, Generations Cafe

Unusual Sources for Finding Female Ancestors


“Any woman who is now or may hereafter be married . . .” Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802–1940
by Marian L. Smith
Genealogy Notes | Summer 1998, Vol. 30, No. 2