Using Newspapers to Uncover Women’s Birth Surnames

Do you have a woman in your family tree whose married surname you know, but you don’t know the one she was born with? If traditional genealogical records haven’t solved the mystery, try using historical newspapers! In this post, we’ll discuss 5 newspaper sections that can help you figure out the surname a woman had before marriage.

15 Jul 1910, Fri The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana)

Before you start, remember you’ll need to search for the woman’s name the way it would’ve appeared in the newspaper. This may mean searching variations of her name (nicknames, alternate spellings, etc.) or searching by her husband’s name or initials, e.g., “Mrs. John Smith” or “Mrs. J. Smith.” (Read this blog post for more tips: “Top 5 Tips for Finding Your Female Ancestor in the Newspaper.”)

Also, keep in mind that remarriages, stepfamilies, and half-siblings can make determining the woman’s birth surname even trickier. And you might not know at first that you’re dealing with one of those situations! So always try to verify the information you discovered in the newspaper using additional sources.

1. Obituaries

The first thing to look for is the woman’s obituary.™ makes it easy to find obituaries: simply search for a name, and select “Result Type” then “Obituaries” on the search results page. You can also filter by location and date.

Since obituaries often list the parents’ names, your mystery might be solved pretty quickly if you can locate one. However, if the obituary doesn’t list her parents’ names, look to see if it includes a list of surviving family members. If it lists a brother’s name, it’s possible (even likely) that his surname was also the surname of your female ancestor prior to her marriage.

If no brothers are listed, take a look at the first and middle names of any children mentioned. Do any of those names sound like surnames? If so, the woman might have passed her own family surname along to her children, so it’s worth investigating those names further.

11 Jan 1923, Thu The Indiana Weekly Messenger (Indiana, Pennsylvania)

2. Marriage announcements

A woman’s birth surname is also likely to be mentioned in her newspaper wedding announcement. Since you don’t know what the woman’s surname was prior to her marriage, search for her first name and her future husband’s name to locate the announcement. She might be written about as “Miss Jane Brown” or “Jane, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Brown.” Either way, you now have a likely candidate for her pre-marriage surname.

If her birth surname isn’t mentioned, see if you can find a newspaper article published after the wedding that mentions the details of the day, including the members of the wedding party. If brothers, other male relatives, or unmarried sisters are mentioned as being in attendance, their surnames are a clue to what your ancestor’s surname was. If the names of her married sisters are mentioned, see if you can find their wedding announcements, which might include the parents’ surname even if the announcement for your direct ancestor didn’t.

If your female ancestor was married multiple times, you may need to start with her most recent marriage and work your way back to each previous marriage until you find an announcement that mentions her parents’ surname.

As with obituaries, on™ you can choose to filter your search results to only show marriage announcements. Do this by going to “Result Type” and then “Marriages” on the search results page.

04 Feb 1928, Sat Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii)

3. Anniversary announcements

If you can’t find an obituary or wedding announcement for your female ancestor, try looking to see if wedding anniversary announcements were ever published for her and her husband. They are especially likely to appear during major anniversary years (25th, 50th, etc.).

Like obituaries and marriage announcements, anniversary announcements can contain a wealth of family detail, including the names of parents, siblings, children, etc., which can point you in the direction of the surname you’re looking for.

If you don’t find an anniversary announcement for that particular female ancestor, try searching by her married name to see if you can find her mentioned in an anniversary announcement for her parents or siblings. Even if the announcement isn’t for your direct ancestor, it might contain the clues you need to solve the surname mystery.

08 Nov 1919, Sat California Eagle (Los Angeles, California)

4. Family reunion recaps

Some newspapers published recaps of local family reunions, including a list of who was in attendance. If the woman you’re looking for appears in one of these lists under her married name (or her husband’s name), take a look at the surnames of the other people in the list. Does it look like the reunion is for her side of the family or her husband’s? If it looks like it’s for her side of the family, what are the common surnames mentioned? Odds are in your favor that one of those surnames is the one you’re looking for, though you may need to do a bit more digging to confirm.

And pay attention to whether the reunion summary mentions if it’s an annual reunion. If it does, you’ll want to search for newspaper summaries of those other reunions to see if they reveal even more detail. 

5. Travel and social news

Travel and social news are frequently just a sentence or two long, but they can reveal so much. For example, if one notice says that Mr. and Mrs. John Smith visited her brother Mr. James Brown for Thanksgiving, you now have a solid hint about her birth surname! Same thing goes for mentions of parents, unmarried sisters, or paternal cousins. 

07 Jul 1883, Sat St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri)

Have you used newspapers to solve any mysteries when researching the women in your family tree? Share your successes with us in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Using Newspapers to Uncover Women’s Birth Surnames

  1. What a great article, and one that can be of so much value in research for a variety of reasons.
    I purchased a nice sized farm in Maine years ago, complete with several old foundations apparently from homes of the 1700’s.
    In researching the 400 acres I discovered the farm was once of 1800 acres in the 1600’s and parceled out in 30, 40 and 80 acre parcels to neighboring in-laws and out-laws of the original settlers. I found most of my information in the Registry of Deeds on how those small parcels were later purchased in the 1800’s by one man and his son which brought the farm to its 400 acre size. The Registry of Deeds also identified the buyer and the name of his wife.
    With that information I discovered the books in the Genealogy section of the local library complete with headstone inscriptions and names of the local cemetery, including the owners, children, weddings of the children, their children, etc., right up to present day with all the books dated.
    Some locals were fascinated with my research and I was able to take people into my woods to their relatives’ house foundation and cellar hole of the 1600’s. One person returned with a metal detector and found some old coins near the stone doorstep and original door hardware and a buggy step.
    Doing this research was a wonderful winter project for over 10 years and the farm came together like an amazing jigsaw puzzle done to scale on a registered Survey with all the names and dates.
    Registry of Deeds is free and listed by each County of your state. It contains very old maps and plans, and of course all the deeds and owners of your home and it becomes a challenge at frst but a piece of cake as you get familiar with the system.
    A great pastime for young and old.

    1. Wow! What incredible research and an amazing project! Thanks for sharing your story and for passing along such helpful tips.

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