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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

May 15, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Missing Maiden Name

Q: Please tell me what procedure to follow when a census report shows only the married name of the woman. Should I show it on my family genealogy reports or leave the space blank? -- Everett

A: Many records that genealogists use, especially when it comes to researching in the United States, only list a woman's married name. The census is just one of these records in which you will find a woman mentioned by her married name in later years.

If you are recording the information from the census, a transcript for instance, you would record the information exactly as it appears in the record. If you are entering the individual into your family file and don't already know her maiden name, then you would not include her in the database with her married name. Women should be listed on reports and in databases with their maiden names when known.

If you don't know her maiden name, then there are two things you can do. The first, and most popular option, is to just leave the surname off. So in the family file she would be seen with just her first name. If you would like to follow more formal methods, for example you think you might want to publish the genealogy in a journal, then you should record those females for whom you do not know the maiden name as:

Mary [--?--]

This is the accepted format among genealogical journals. Of course, most genealogy programs will question such an entry. You might be able to tell the genealogy program to ignore this unusual surname. Most people choose to record a woman without a surname because their genealogy programs don't understand this notation.

Just Getting Started

Q: I am really new to genealogy. My mom's side of the family has completed some genealogy research and I would like to research my dad's side. Most of the family on his side is either dead or impossible to locate. I'm wondering if I have to pay to get birth certificates and whether there is a way to find out what my dad's parents' names were? -- Myra

A: If there aren't any living family members to contact, your only option may be to order birth certificates. To begin, you should understand that it is very important to get all the records that exist for each individual you are researching. So even if you knew the names of your father's parents, you would still want to get a copy of the birth certificate.

Depending on when he was born and how common the surname is, you may be able to pick him up in census records as a child in either the 1920 or 1930 census. This might mean that you look through the census for families with your father's surname in the area he was born. Then, eliminate those families without a male child who shares your father's name.

Usually if I have to order a birth certificate, I will first look to see if I can find the certificate available on microfilm through the Family History Library. Certificates that are available on microfilm are usually indexed. I will order the index first and then keep my eye out for any siblings of the individual I am researching. Then, I order the appropriate microfilms once I have gone through the census. If the certificates are not available on microfilm, then my next step is to check vital record sites online ( and to see if I can order the certificate online. This sometimes costs me more, but it usually saves time.

If I need to write to the county courthouse to request the birth certificate, I look to see what other records might be available on microfilm through the Family History Library and begin to look into the census records. Specifically, I search page by page through census records for towns and counties I know my family came from. Usually while I am working on this part of the research the requested birth certificate arrives in the mail and gives me information to compare with what I have found in the census or other records. This allows me to identify individuals as relatives.

Determining Place of Marriage

Q: I am trying to find out where my parents got married. They have both died, so I cannot ask them. My brother says the were married in Mississippi and I say it was Georgia. How do I find out? -- Susan

A: You mention that your parents are now deceased. If you haven't done so yet, you will want to get a copy of each of their death certificates. You may be able to learn when and where they were married along with the names of their parents. This information will help you to search other records and perhaps narrow down where they married.

The general rule for marriages is that they took place in the home town of the bride. That is, the couple married where the bride's family lived. This was usually because women did not venture very far from home, even after reaching adulthood. There are, of course, exceptions including teachers who might have traveled to find a school in need of a teacher. Some girls ran away from home to make a life of their own. However, a good place to begin to search for a marriage is in the town where the bride was born or living at the time of the marriage.

To find out this information, you would probably begin by looking for the family in the town and county where your mother was born. Again, depending on when your mother was born, you may find census records that might help. In the United States, the census records are available for 1930 and earlier. The 72-year privacy act prevents the release of those later than 1930 at this time.

Once you know where your mother was living about the time she got married, you may want to search the Family History Library Catalog. To view any films mentioned in the catalog, though, you need to find your local Family History Center.

If the county in question has an index to marriage records, and most do, then you would start by getting this index for the name in question. Some counties have the index only by name of groom. If this is the case in your county, the catalog entry would mention this so you could order the most appropriate film.

If the Family History Library Catalog does not have films listed for the county you need, then you will need to write directly to the county courthouse. It is important to be as thorough as possible with the information you know about the marriage because they need details to verify that they have found the correct certificate for you. At the very least you would need to have the names of the bride and groom and the year of marriage.

In order to request a copy of the marriage record, you must narrow your research down to a county. While the state may have some of the vital records, marriages are usually only found at the county level. Even if you were to find them available at the state level, the state would want you to specify the county in which the marriage took place.

Working with the Census Online

Q: I am subscribed to the U.S. Census Collection and wonder how I can research an individual without scanning the entire pages in one area? For instance, in searching for an individual in the 1860 census, is there a way to go directly to the page with a name instead of scanning all 32 pages of an area? -- RMaupin915

A: There are a couple of different ways to work with the U.S. Census Collection. Indexing of the census online is an ongoing project and, at the present time, the 1860 census has not been indexed in the U.S. Census Collection. However, you will want to keep checking back. When the year has been indexed, it will be identified on the site as such.

It is possible that there is an index that you can use that would help to narrow down the pages you need to view to find your ancestor. You might first check the CD-ROM indexes and see if the state you are interested in has been indexed. Remember that theses indexes are head of household indexes only, so you must either search for the name of the head of the household or look at all the entries for a given surname.

If you cannot find the state you need in the CD-ROM indexes, then you may want to venture out onto the Internet, specifically to the USGenWeb Project Web site for the area you are researching. They have posted many indexes, sometimes transcriptions, to the census and this may help you in narrowing down your search in the digitized images.

If you still cannot find an index online to help you, then you may want to see if a nearby library has a genealogy section that can do an index lookup for you from the published census indexes. If your local library does not have them, you might be able to post a message on one of the message boards asking for a look up. Be specific in your request, though, and ask for a specific person with both given and last name, rather than a surname in general. Remember they are taking some of their research time to check for the information you have requested.

Within the indexed images, there are a couple of ways you can search for your ancestor. Remember that the indexes are for the head of household or those who are living in the household that have a different last name from the others in the household. You can do a general search of all of the indexed years, or you can search a specific state. When you are searching in a state, you can search for a specific individual or go to the beginning of a surname and then scroll through those individuals listed who have that surname. I have used this latter method when I am unsure of how the individual may be listed for the given name (for example if he was listed under and initial or nickname).

Until all of the census images have been indexed, you may need to continue to go through page by page as you are doing now or try some of the alternatives discussed above.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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