Big changes have come to — all content is now read-only, and member subscriptions and the Shop have been discontinued.
Learn more
New? Start Here
Genealogy How-To
 Getting Started
 Getting Organized
 Developing Your Research Skills
 Sharing Your Family's Story
 Reference Guide
 Biography Assistant
Free Genealogy Classes
 Beginning Genealogy
 Internet Genealogy
 Tracing Immigrant Origins

Family Finder
First Name:

Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: How to Name Your Females
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 06, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

One of the most common questions received from newcomers to genealogy is how to record the names of females. They wonder how you can keep track of the name of a female given the way her name changes. Just how is it recorded then?

Over the years I have heard any number of reasons why people have elected to to record their females in their unique way. And while the process may make sense to them, it is important that we keep in mind the researchers to come who will also be using our research. They need to understand the naming pattern you used. Therefore it is usually a good idea to follow the patterns that are generally accepted by the genealogical community as a whole.

It is important that we keep in mind the researchers of the future who may use our research.

It's the Maiden Name

Traditionally you record individuals in your database by their name at birth. This can actually apply to others besides females. For instance, a male ancestor who changes his name should be in your database with his birth name, and then either a note or footnote that details the name changing that resulted in his name later in life.

Why is it important to record women with their maiden names? Generally it is because that is the new surname you will be searching for in your attempt to locate her parents' names. This also makes sense when you think of the family group sheet. This is the family group listing the father, the mother and the children. The children's names would logically be listed with the last name of the father. Since the form includes a field for including the name of the spouse, you will still have her surname after marriage handy.

Mrs. Smith

There seems to be a trend of late to name the unknown females in their database. I suspect that in some cases this is because it is easier to name the female than it is to tell the genealogy program that wife or mother is currently unknown. It is a shame that we sometimes are at the mercy of our software programs like this.

However, adding a name to your database such as "Mrs. John Smith" just because she is the wife of John Smith really isn't informative. It doesn't help you and it doesn't help fellow researchers who find your research now, or who will find it down the road.

Another reason that some people seem to want to list their females by their married name is to show that they were indeed married. In the present day and age, marriage is not the strong requirement that it was in the past. I won't debate whether or not this new stance is a good one, but for genealogists, it means that folks are not going to assume that a female listed by her maiden name was never married. All the charts that we work with offer the fields for including the marriage date and place. Those reading your research will see that they were married.

The Unknown Last Name

For many years, females were not allowed to vote. They seldom owned land. They went from being their fathers' daughters to being their husbands' wives. And in each case, they were often considered to be the nameless ones. So it is not surprising that we very often have a hard time determining their maiden name. How do you record this?

There are a number of ways to do this. First though a look at the standard. If you look in any of the published journals, you will see that females with unknown surnames are listed as Mary [--?--]. This is the accepted standard.

Unfortunately, if you use this in most genealogy programs they tend to throw up warning messages to the screen. And I do understand how some people find that intimidating. Another acceptable practice is to use the initials MNU which stands for "maiden name unknown".

I have seen comments online from others who use the term "unknown" or just leave the surname field blank. Both are options that tend to keep the genealogy software quiet.

In Conclusion

While you may feel that you have valid reasons for using the naming scheme that you have devised, it is important to remember that other researchers cannot read your mind. You want them to be able to easily follow the research you leave behind. Females should always be listed in your database and on your forms by their maiden name.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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

Back to Top of Article

Home | Help | About Us | Terms of Service | PRIVACY
© 2011