Which surname for grandma?

post women surnames

During my research I noticed that the surname of female ancestors is often an issue, especially for people from the USA.

In fact, in the US as well as in other countries, women take the husband’s surname when marrying. On the contrary, in Italy women keep using their maiden surname, with a mention of the husband’s one. But to make things more complicated this is not a general rule, especially when dealing with records: it depends from the place, the time, the circumstance and probably also from the clerk’s habit.

This post is thought for those of you who find this lack of a rule discouraging, for the ones who made mistakes with a grandmother’s surname and ended up following a wrong family branch and for the ones who faced a brick wall until they discovered the surname to search was another…

I will not tell you when and where women are recorded by which surname, but I will make you a list of (hopefully) all possible cases you may face during your research.

This can be used also for graves inscriptions, which follow no rule at all!

Your “grandmother and grandfather” in these examples will be MARIA ROSSI and GIUSEPPE FERRARI (two very common Italian names!)

Here is how Maria Rossi may be recorded after having married Giuseppe Ferrari.


This is the most common case

post 5 tab 1


post 5 tab 2


This is the worst case and a potential brick wall to find out Maria’s birth act

post 5 tab 3

And now, some cases that DID happen to my customers, and so they may happen again: watch out!

Case 1: husband emigrating first, wife emigrating later. At the arrival at Ellis Island she gives her maiden name and enters the US with that. My customer thought she arrived as a single and got crazy searching for the marriage record in the US. Actually, the woman had married before emigrating but the husband surname was not shown

Case 2: husband emigrating first, wife and children emigrating later. At the arrival at Ellis Island she is recorded with her maiden name. The clerk, assuming that this is the husband’s surname, register all children by the mother’s maiden name. Result: all children enter the US with a wrong surname. Passenger list records show wrong surnames too!

My suggestion: unless you are 100% sure that your female ancestor was recorder ALWAYS with her maiden surname or with her husband’s surname, take the effort of checking the other option, too: you may tear a brick wall down!

Last but not least, if you stumbled upon other forms or records, let me know so I can interpretate the meaning for you and add it to the list. Also, feel free to share any comment!

I hope this was useful

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