Did you know that Mother’s Day is 105 years old? We’ve been celebrating it nationally since 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson declared it a national holiday. This year, it will occur on May 12. Anna Jarvis of West Virginia had advocated for the holiday starting after her own mother died in 1905, facing resistance in some quarters until the president took unilateral action.
Jarvis’ mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, was a pacifist who served wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, and she had begun the first Mother’s Day Work Clubs in many states to address public health issues. Anna Jarvis wanted to continue her mother’s mission after she died – so the idea for the day all went back to genealogy. Jarvis was displeased by the later commercialization of the day, but was delighted to see so many celebrating the often unacknowledged work of their own mothers and grandmothers.
Though it’s an historic era for women in 2019, with many mothers running for the presidency, for example, we still often don’t know much about our female ancestors or how best to celebrate Mother’s Day uniquely with the important women in our families. Let’s explore how to learn more about female ancestors and also about creative, thoughtful ways to celebrate Mother’s Day so that everyone in the family can learn more.
First, it’s a good idea to reach out to verify that we have captured all available information about ancestors from within the family. This includes photos, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, legal documents, and other mementoes. (If you haven’t checked with family members recently, check again because sometimes they have forgotten about buried ancestor treasure.)
Family Bibles may be helpful, but check to see if a Bible is actually dated before the beginning of birth/marriage/death dates in it. Otherwise, recorded dates may have been transcribed from prior Bibles or documents, potentially reducing accuracy (though still being helpful).
Check for probate records that might have information about female ancestors. Seek pension records, especially from the Civil War (1861-1865), because they often contain vital information about ancestors’ sometimes tragic post-war conditions. Often, we learn about the women’s maiden names in pension records and because of the the men in their lives and vice versa. Some people discover that their Arkansas great-grandmothers had both Union and Confederate soldiers, not to mention deserters, in the family!
Contemporary Sources/Social Media
Are you and your mom using Facebook? Remember that ancestry message boards and social media like Facebook may be used effectively to reach out to distant relatives we may not have met. We can inquire if they have information about ancestors we’re tracing, and reciprocate. Facebook also has more than 10,000 English-language genealogy groups, many in the exact cities, counties, and regions of countries of female ancestors.
If we join those groups, researchers in a home country may assist us in finding key resources. For international researchers, there are also many similar Facebook groups in several languages.
YouTube often also has family history videos (about individual families and communities) as well as research tutorials to help strengthen our research. Contacting someone who is researching similar names at YouTube or Facebook can yield remarkable benefits.
Grandmother’s Friends and Family
What can we learn about grandmother’s friends and neighbors in census that might lead to more direct information about her? For female ancestors who were orphans, orphanage/adoption or guardianship records often are available.
Also, is information about our grandmother to be found on our grandfathers’ World War I/WW II military draft records? Would land record shows us if grandmother owned any land, especially after grandfather died? May we
find grandmother’s maiden name by checking Social Security applications?
Once we learn a maiden name and the area she came from in America or a native country, we can often go to online foreign newspapers to learn more about a family. We can look at church/census records from country of origin. School records are also often available in European countries and America, and may be found from the 1850s or earlier. Tax records in the country of origin are sometimes also available, and they are signed frequently by an actual ancestor herself – with signatures being a great family treasure.
Archives and Libraries/Local Sources
We need to follow up on historical records such as those from the Arkansas State Archives, university libraries and local libraries in the area where grandmother lived. We may search local newspapers, normally done online or in person, for entries like recipes she may have created, wedding stories, birth stories and obituaries. City directories may tell us exactly where females lived between censuses. Did grandmother have a church membership? Was she in any organizations? Reference librarians are often critical in identifying sources.
Gifts Related to the Family’s Past and Future
We often take mom or grandmother out for dinner on the special May day, and offer gifts we think they’ll appreciate. This year, if the women you’re honoring haven’t taken DNA tests and might enjoy that, then you’re in luck. The major DNA testing companies like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and others are offering discounts through May 12.
Also, as Family Tree magazine recommends, have you tried the (free) JoyFlips digital family albums? Still photos, videos, and voiceovers may be arranged as you like to highlight family dates and accomplishments. You can add titles, tags, and other personalizations that will be helpful in the future. Curating what is important now will save future generations organizational time, and Mom or Grandmother may enjoy it now, too.
For the card-playing mothers in your family, “OurCards” in Dracut, Massachusetts offers customized decks of playing cards featuring your own family members and stories.
How about a family history large diary/journal that has pre-printed suggested topics that Mom or grandmother can customize with her own thoughts throughout the year and that can be treasured later for family memories? Our mothers are often automatically tasked with gathering our family history, but sometimes have little focus on their own, so they forget to document themselves.
The fascinating tapestry of our female ancestors’ lives deserves serious attention and respect, and a magical Mother’s Day is the perfect occasion to unify the family so it remembers and appreciates its females’ unsung history.
Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who also serves on the boards the Arkansas Genealogical Society and the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas and elsewhere.