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Uncertain of last name. Where to look?

Bolivar, OH

I would love to find out more about my mother's paternal grandmother. I know that she came from Germany at about the age of 16 in the 1910's - probably through Ellis Island and ended up in a small town in PA. The problem is that no one can remember precisely what her maiden name was. Any suggestions?

Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

You said nobody can remember precisely what her maiden name people at least have some guesses? Even if it's not spelled exactly right that would at least give you a place to start, or it might help you narrow things down if you come up with several potential people you think might be her.

I'd start by seeing if you can find a marriage record for her & your g-grandfather. That would typically list her maiden name. You could also get her death certificate--sometimes those will list maiden names and may list her parents' names as well (if the person who was the informer for the certificate knew this information--sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't)

I would also look in the 1930 census (and 1920 if she was married by then) and find her and your g-grandfather. Sometimes you'll find multiple generations living together, so it's possible you may find her parents or one of her siblings living with them. Maybe not, but it's worth a shot, I've found quite a few maiden names that way. Even if you don't find others from her family with them, where they're living in 1930/1920 may give you some clues as to where her family settled after they arrived. There's a decent chance that your g-grandfather grew up close by and they continued living in the same area of PA once they were married. Some families wander more than others so it's not a guarantee, but it makes a good starting point when you don't have anything else to go on. You could also look back into the 1920 & 1910 census and find out where your g-grandfather was--again assuming that they grew up near each other you could well find her family at least in the same county if not in the same town.

Hopefully you'll at least manage to figure out what county if not town of PA she was in, so then if you know the first names of enough of the family members you might be able to search through the 1920 census and figure out her last name. The fact that everyone in the family would have been born in Germany will help you narrow down families since many people in the town/county were likely born in the US. This'll be more time consuming unless someone in the family had a really unusual first name, and unless you know her parents' first names and/or a fair number of names of her siblings you may wind up with way too many possibilities. If they came after 1910 and she was married by 1920 this will be harder since you won't find her living with her family, but again if you know enough other names you may be able to narrow it down.

Again if you know some family members' names, you could try something similar with Ellis Island records. For this, it would help to know about when she arrived--if you found her in the 1930 census hopefully that would list her year of arrival. Take it with a grain of salt--it can often be off by a couple years, but again it gives you a starting point.

Bolivar, OH

Wow, ecrane3 thanks for all of the wonderful suggestions! I know which county she lived in when I was a little girl and that she had lived in the same house for years. I was going on the assumption that she & my great-grandfather were also married there...maybe not. I do know that she came over alone and that she had a sister already in the States. Maybe my mom would remember the sister's name. You have really made me think and given me ideas for a few new avenues to persue...thanks!

Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

Glad to help! If she came over alone then I wouldn't try to look for Ellis Island records until you've got some decent guesses on her maiden name (I had assumed that the family all came over together when I made that suggestion) I'd still start with marriage/death records, and the census records are still worth looking for after that. Assuming her sister was the only family she had here, chances are she probably lived with her when she first arrived. If she hadn't married your g-grandfather yet, you may find her living with her sister in the 1920 census, or if she was married by then, there's a good chance you'll find her sister living nearby. If she'd lived in that one place for so long, there's a good chance that she'd been in that area since she arrived from Germany, so I'd definitely use that county as your starting point for any searches. Good luck!

Burien, WA(Zone 7b)

So how does a person just go look at a census? I don't mean to hijack the thread, but I would like to start searching my family history and don't know where to start either. Every place wants me to register or join a membership. Ecrane, how did you get so knowledgable?

Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

I've belonged to Ancestry for 2 yrs now and have been spending a lot of time researching my own family during those 2 yrs, so I've learned a few tricks along the way. That's also where I get all the census records from so I won't be too much help on where to get them for free!

I know that there's one census that's out there online for free (1880 I think) but I'm not sure if there are places online where you can access all the other census records without having to pay. You might check with your local library and see if they have an Ancestry subscription--some libraries do and then you can go there and do some searching for free. Or there is probably an LDS Family History center somewhere in your area and they should have census records as well as many other helpful resources. Or if you think you can get your searching done fairly quickly, Ancestry offers free 14 day trials (other subscription sites probably do too). Of course if you're like me, you'll get hooked and end up not canceling after the 14 days are up! is a free site that has quite a bit of info, both public records and user-submitted info. Be careful with the user submitted entries since those are subject to error (people doing poor research, etc). For the same reason if you do join a site like Ancestry, don't just automatically trust what someone else has put in their tree unless they have sources to back it up.

Harpursville, NY(Zone 5a)

I have a subscription to and the Federal census is included in that. If your relatives were here in the 1910's , you can go to BetaThey have the 1910 census on there as well as some state census available that are free. When you get to the Beta site, click onto the Library icon. You will get a space to type in information. Either type in the state then search the drop down menu for the word census or type in United States and the word census. I also recommend doing a surname search. You may find your grandfather and in turn find your grandmother that way:)
I have been doing this since 1998 when I got my first computer, it is very addicting. If you do Facebook, go to the facebook page or to Ancestryville. There are a lot of people there waiting to help you.

Burien, WA(Zone 7b)

Thanks for the tips, it is still daunting. It's interesting for awhile, then I get overwhelmed.

Bolivar, OH

Thanks again, ecrane, for more good info and to you, mommagoose. Shune -- one thing I have tried with a fair amount of success (when I am sure of names) is Google. I will google the person's name and sift through whatever it pulls up. If I find something that I believe will be useful, then I try to find another source to collaborate what I have learned. It will also usually give me additional ideas for things to look for. You have to be careful when you do this that you are getting accurate information but it seems to pay off eventually. Also,if you can find something that is footnoted those sources often contain additional information that might be beneficial to you.

Indiana, PA(Zone 5a)

I work in a courthouse in Western Pa and do a lot of genealogy research. Did you try looking at naturalization records in the Prothonotary's office of the courthouse in the county in which she lived? You might have some luck there. Also, was her sister married in the same county? What does her marriage record say? The other posters have given good suggestions too. Oh, and try the county genealogical society.

Bolivar, OH

Thanks for the suggestions, Kathy. I have not tried any of those things yet. I suppose I was letting the fact that I am stumped by her last name get in the way.

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