Thursday, July 7, 2011

Frequently Asked Question : The Case of the Missing Woman

Family history is always a quest for the yet unknown and can be quite challenging for some ancestral lines.  Women tend to be the hardest to research because of last name changes and for the simple reason that they typically don't show up in the written record as often as men.

Patrons who visit the Local History Collection are often stymied by the "missing woman," one that has apparently disappeared after a certain date or event.  In fact, the term "missing" really only means that she doesn't  show up in the expected places.

Once you've exhausted your search looking in all of the normal places such as death certificates, cemeteries, and the local newspaper, it's time to think outside of the box.  This is something I have a difficult time convincing researchers to do, as they are so convinced of their "facts" that they don't always consider all of the possibilities.

Case In Point - This week a local researcher was searching for Effie A. Slack, a woman who had lived most of her life in Oshtemo Township.  Effie's husband, Hudson Slack, died in 1948 and was buried in West Oshtemo Cemetery, Kalamazoo County, as were countless other Slack's, but not Effie.  She last appeared with Hudson in the 1930 census and his obituary indicated that his wife had predeceased him.  One would deduce that she must have died between the taking of the census in 1930 and Hudson's death in 1948.

A search was made of Kalamazoo County death records and when that didn't yield results, the search fanned out to Van Buren & Allegan County, the nearest neighbors.  Still no Effie. 

Then, I asked the question that I always ask when a patron can't find a female...."Are you sure she didn't marry again and have a different last name?"  The researcher felt adamant that Effie would not have had another married name as her husband outlived her and they were together in 1930, so we scrapped that idea for the moment.

We checked in other area cemeteries and tried several indexes of vital records, online & off, with no results.  Finally, we took another look at the cemetery readings for West Oshtemo Cemetery where Hudson Slack was buried without Effie.  Fanning the search out beyond the Slack plot, I noticed that there was an Effie A. Gorham buried all alone just five stones down the row from the Slack's.  Effie Gorham died in 1935 and seemed of the appropriate age - could this be Effie Slack? 

A quick search of the Kalamazoo County death records index in our microfilm collection confirmed a listing for Effie A. (Slack) Gorham in 1935.  A search of the Kalamazoo County marriage index showed a marriage between Effie Slack & Adelbert Gorham in 1933.  Apparently, Effie & Hudson were divorced sometime between 1930 & 1933, although this would need to be verified by searching for a divorce file. 

In summary, when you are looking for a "missing woman," try some of the following:
  1. Search for a death record in the county of last known residence, any prior residences, and the residences of any of her children, siblings, or parents.
  2. Search for a marriage record in any of the above counties even if you are "sure" she never married again.
  3. Don't rely exclusively on indexes or online databases to locate a record.  Human error applies to both.  Go through records manually, if necessary, for the appropriate place and time period.
  4. If other family members appear in a cemetery or census, take a look at nearby individuals for clues to the woman or other relatives that may lead you to her.
  5. Don't assume that all information on a record is accurate or true.  Many times marital status is "fudged" to hide family irregularities, particularly divorce or desertion. 
For other strategies in researching the women in your family tree, read A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors, by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack.  This book can be checked out with a Van Buren District Library card, or request it through your local library.