Female Ancestor = Few Records

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What do you do when you have only a tiny handful of genealogical records, especially for a female ancestor? Is there even a story there? Today we will take a look at a case together and see what clues we can find.

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Why are females so hard to find?

Finding female ancestors in our family history search is often one of the most difficult things! Throughout history, women have often been hidden under their husband’s or father’s records.

This is called feme covert or coverture, a woman being legally “covered” or protected by her husband. Coverture laws applied to many things, including property rights, taxation, and voting rights. The result for us as genealogists is that we need to look closely to find the story of a woman under those laws. We also have to look at the men in her life to find all the clues we need to piece together her story.

Today we will discuss a woman named Josephine Donohoo Allender, who only lived until the age of 26 in Kentucky.

Records that exist for Josephine

1850 U.S. Federal Census

We will start with the 1850 U.S. Federal Census. This was the first census to list every member of the family. We find Josephine in her parents’ household in Nelson County, Kentucky.

1850 U.S. Federal Census, Nelson County, Kentucky, F.T. Donohoo household

Josephine is in the household of F.T. and Rebecca Donohoo. She is age 15, born in Kentucky, and listed with several other children.

1840 U.S. Federal Census

Because she is fifteen in 1850, Josephine should also appear in the census with her family in 1840. However, this census only lists the heads of household with tick marks for all other household members.

1840 U.S. Federal Census, Nelson County, Kentucky, Frances T. Donohoo household

The household lists females in the household under 5 years, and from 5-10 years. Josephine could fit into either of those categories. This census does not add many more details to her life story, other than verifying that she was likely in the household.

Marriage Records

Although she could appear in her father’s household again in 1860 as a 25 year old woman, it is also probable that Josephine married during the ten years between the censuses. A search of the Nelson County marriage records provided a small group of records created for the event.

1856 Marriage License for Josephine Donohoo and Joseph Allender

This marriage license shows that Josephine Donohoo married Joseph W. Allender on 20 December 1856. They were married by the priest of the Catholic Church at the home of Francis Donohoo (most likely her father’s house.)

1856 Marriage Certificate of Josephine Donohoo and Joseph Walter Allender

The next marriage record was the certificate verifying the marriage occurred. This record gives additional details. It states that Joseph’s middle name was Walter, aged 23 years, and that he was born Pittsburg, Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Josephine’s age is given as 23 years old, born in Bardstown, Nelson, Kentucky.

Birth Record

First comes love, then comes marriage… you know the old nursery rhyme we used to chant? Well, it is quite accurate for genealogy research. The next place to look for a woman in genealogy records is in birth records having children after her marriage.

Kentucky kept spotty birth records during this time period. One birth record was located for the couple. Josephine gave birth to Catherine T. Allender on 1 June 1859.

1859 Nelson County, Kentucky birth record for Catherine Allender

1860 U.S. Federal Census

A search for the couple in the 1860 Federal Census in Nelson County, Kentucky, only returned an entry for a J. Allender in a boarding house. There were no other Allender households in the county. No entries for a Josephine or Catherine Allender were found.

1860 U.S. Federal Census, Nelson County, Kentucky, J. Allender

The 1860 census includes a mortality schedule that lists all individuals that died within the year before the census was taken. A search in this record revealed what happened to Josephine.

1860 U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedule, Nelson County, Kentucky, Allender entries

Josephine Allender died at age 26, in August 1859, after a 12 day illness with typhoid fever. On the next line, we see an entry for her infant, Kate Allender, age 1/12 (one month). She died in September 1859, of marasmus (malnutrition) after suffering for two weeks. What a tragic end to her story!

Be Thorough in Your Research

However, the story would not be complete if we did not finish researching Josephine’s extended family as well.

In the 1860 census entry for Josephine’s father, Frank, we find a child named Walter Allender, age 2, in the household. Josephine’s husband’s middle name was Walter. How likely is it that her grieving widow could not care for the toddler and left Walter in the custody of Josephine’s parents?

Even though only one birth record was found for children born to this couple, it appears that Josephine was the mother of two children: Catherine and Walter.

What is her story?

From the small handful of records about Josephine, plus more clues gathered from her family members, we have pieced together her story. Josephine Donohoo Allender was born about 1834 in Bardstown, Nelson, Kentucky, to parents Francis and Rebecca Donohoo. She married Joseph Walter Allender, of Pennsylvania, on 20 December 1856. The couple welcomed children Walter (b. about 1858) and Catherine (b. 1 June 1859) to their family. Josephine died of typhoid fever in August of 1859. Her newborn baby died of starvation a few weeks later. Joseph gave their son, Walter, to his maternal grandparents to care for after Josephine’s death.

It is a short story. It has a tragic ending. But her life mattered. And now she can be remembered.

If you have a female ancestor that you just can’t seem to find much on follow these two steps. First, take a closer look at the handful of documents you have about her and carefully examine each clue. Second, take another look at the documents of her family members, especially the men, to see what their documents tell about her!

What interesting story have you pieced together for a female ancestor with few records of her own?

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  1. I just listened to this episode – it gave me an idea of how to find a missing grandmother. You do a great job of explaining the records & concepts.

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