Course: 2024-09 – Women and Children First! Research Methods for the Hidden Half of the Family

Coordinator: Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, CGL


The women of our families – mothers, sisters, wives – and the children they bore and raised comprise far more than just a hidden half of our families: women and children greatly outnumbered the menfolk. Yet they left fewer traces in the records, and researching these family members effectively poses challenges for any genealogist. From the obvious topics of school and work records to the way these family members were disguised behind tick marks in the census, from clues hidden away in manuscript collections to the clues hidden away in our very genetic code, the focus of this course is on the research methods that help us find and learn more about these hidden members of the family.

Other Instructors:

Blaine Bettinger, PhD, JD
Catherine Becker Wiest Desmarais, CG
Alec Ferretti
Michael Ramage, JD, CG
Richard G. Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA
Ari Wilkins

Student Prerequisites: None

Recommendations: None

Day Session Title Description Instructor
Monday 1 Introduction: Why Women and Children First The women of our families and the children they bore and raised comprise far more than just a hidden half of our families: women and children greatly outnumbered the menfolk. Yet they left fewer traces in the records, and researching these family members effectively poses challenges for any genealogist. This session will include introductions, an overview of the course, and begin to answer the question of why we should – and how we can – research women and children first. Russell
2 Matched and Detached: Women, Children, Marriage and Divorce How old did someone have to be to marry in 1700 Virginia? In 1800 Kentucky? In 1900 Pennsylvania? What records would be created for those of age – and those under age? When and where were common law marriages recognized? What grounds existed for divorce, and how did that change over time? And what happened to the children when their parents’ marriage dissolved? This session will focus on marriage and divorce as they impact our research into the lives of our families’ women and children. Russell
3 School Days: Children in and out of the Classrooms Free public schools are such a staple of American life that we sometimes forget that early schools often weren’t free and weren’t public. This session will explore the history of public education in terms of the law and the practice of the day – and what records exist to help understand the education the children of our families received. Russell
4 “In the Line of Duty” –Women and Children in Pension Records Military pension records and bounty land files provide some of the strongest and most direct clues to the women and children of our families: benefits were provided by the law to the widows, the wives, the children–even the parents and brothers and sisters of those killed or injured in the line of duty. This session will focus on the rules of eligibility as they changed over time, the records created as they changed over time, and where those records may be found. Sayre
Tuesday 5 On the Dole: Poor Relief, Mother’s Pensions and Welfare From colonial to modern times, some social safety net has existed for the poorest members of society, usually the poorest women and children. This session will focus on the types of relief available, the rules for granting relief, and the astounding array of genealogically valuable records created as a result of being on the dole. Russell
6 Apprenticeships, Indentures, and Binding Out Many children in early America were apprenticed by their parents to learn a trade. Poor, illegitimate, or orphaned children were indentured or bound out by local legal authority. This session will focus on the many types of indentures and apprenticeships, both legal and not-so-legal. Who could be apprenticed, why, and for how long? We will discuss what records exist, where to find them, and how to access them. Numerous examples will be used. Wilkins
7 Inheritance and The Widow’s Thirds: Women and Probate Wives and daughters, mothers and sisters all fared poorly under common law when it came to the right to inherit from husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. The law favored men over women and, often, older sons over younger sons. But there were provisions for females in the law: in some cases, to inherit, in others, to receive a dower right. This session will focus on the special rules and records of inheritance and the widow’s thirds: the right of dower. Russell
8 Nurture, Nature and Socage: Children and Guardianship While poor children were bound out or sent to orphanages, children of propertied families were put under guardianship when a parent died or when property came to the child by inheritance from another family member. This session will focus on the records of these guardianships to help understand the detailed look they provide into the lives of these children and, sometimes, the lives of siblings, parents, and others as well. Russell
Wednesday 9 “Can you hear me now?” Women’s Voices in Historic Court Records The details of women’s lives are often absent from historical records, with a notable exception: court records. Though underutilized by genealogists, these records offer unique insight into the lives of our foremothers. Women managed estates, served as witnesses, were parties to divorce, requested financial support for out-of-wedlock children, asked for fair solutions to disputes, and were judged for the their conduct. Hear women’s voices in civil, criminal, and chancery court records, and learn where to find these records to help tell your ancestor’s story. Desmarais
10 “No Place to Lay My Head”: Records of Orphans and Orphanages Placing children in formal orphanages was rare but not unheard of in early America: the first asylums specifically for children were opened in the 1790s. When adoption laws were first enacted in the 1850s, permanent legal placements became more common, and the Civil War escalated the number of children affected. This session will look at the records of orphans and orphanages and will also include some methodologies useful in unknown parentage cases (adoptions, orphan trains, and the like). Russell
11 The Right to Conduct Business: Was Your Ancestor a Feme Sole Trader? What is the meaning of feme covert? What is a feme sole trader? How did coverture (the condition of a married woman) affect a woman’s rights? What entrepreneurial rights existed in days of yore for our ancestral women folk? The English common law, civil law, court case law, legislation, custom, and more shaped whether or not early married women could enter into contracts, own property, or engage in commerce. Learn about these laws and the records that may reveal whether or not your early female ancestor was, in fact, working for profit. A survey of the relevant laws across the Colonies and the United States will be provided from Colonial times to World War II. Ramage
12 Of Lace and Wooden Shoes: Women and Children under Civil Law British common law impacted women throughout much of colonial America and the early United States – but not everywhere. Women and children wearing the lace of the French or Spanish colonies, or the wooden shoes of the Dutch, lived under a very different legal system – one that continues to impact women and children in parts of North America even today. This session will explore the differences between the common law and the civil law, and the records that reflect those differences. Russell
Thursday 13 Of Delinquents and Common Scolds: Women, Children and Criminal Justice Only children were treated as delinquents, yet children as young as nine and ten could be executed for murder. Only women could be prosecuted as common scolds, and some penalties differed greatly depending on the gender of the convict. The criminal justice system drew distinctions between men and women and treated children often with too much or too little attention to their needs. This session will focus on the criminal justice records of the otherwise hidden women and children of our families. Russell
14 DNA and the Hidden Half of the Family The 21st-century genealogist’s toolkit includes DNA testing, and — properly used — DNA tests can shed light on the hidden members of our families. This session will provide an overview of the major types of DNA testing and focus particularly on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and autosomal DNA as means to identify women and children. Bettinger
15 It’s Off to Work We Go: Women and Children in the Workplace Special labor laws to protect the health and safety of women and children in the workplace are a modern phenomenon. This session will trace the history of these laws and the records created under them that allow us to trace the work history of the hidden members of our families and to understand their lives as laborers in mills, mines, and more. Russell
16 Extra! Extra! Read All About It! Women and Children in the Newspapers From the earliest days of the American colonies to modern times, the newspapers have been among the best sources of information about the women and children who would otherwise be hidden members of our families. From birth and death notices, to society columns, to reports of school and athletic success, newspapers chronicled family history as much as they did the general news of the day. This session will focus on finding and making effective use of newspaper accounts of women and children. Russell
Friday 17 Oath of Allegiance: The Citizenship Status of Women and Children At common law, citizenship followed the father: if he was a citizen, so was his spouse, and so were his children. But American law didn’t always follow the common law, and this session will provide the foundations for understanding the statutory framework for citizenship is key to understanding whether the women and children of a family were citizens or not – and what records might exist of their citizenship and naturalization status. Ferretti
18 Keeping the Homefires Burning: Women and Children in Manuscripts The little that is known of the ordinary day-to-day lives of ordinary women and children through history tends to come to us in bits and pieces: a scrap of a diary, a letter, a set of home recipes. This session focuses on finding these bits and pieces, principally in manuscript collections, and integrating them effectively into a family’s history. Russell