Going up the female line

Tracing one’s paternal line in history is generally among the main goals of any genealogist, or indeed anyone who feels a certain twinge of curiosity from within to know more about one’s origins. This is in no way surprising, as in most countries in the western world children bear the father’s last name (in some cases, like in Portugal, people inherit the mother’s maiden name, but it’s the father’s that gets passed on to the next generation; in Spain for instance people have two surnames: children inherit the father’s last name first, followed by the mother’s last name – incidentally, women in Spain do not take their husband’s last name upon marriage).

But have you considered tracing your matrilineal (i.e. the female) line? Doing so is actually very interesting, and can prove surprisingly revealing to any family historian. Naturally, in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany and so on, where women drop their last name and take up their husband’s upon marrying, might make the research all the more challenging. But as genealogical research is all about challenge, one has to face the music sooner or later anyway.

The last Tsar of Russia and his family, in 1913. They were all murdered five years after the photo was taken. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Establishing a matrilineal line can be as useful as it is interesting. Did you know that in the case of most species, including humans, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited solely through the mother, which makes sequencing the link between two purported relatives a lot easier, as long as they are related to each other through an unbroken succession of females. Consider for once moment one of the most famous historical cases where mtDNA was used for the positive identification of relatives, that of the last Russian imperial family, who were all murdered together by the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1918. Their charred and mutilated remains lay scattered for decades in a shallow grave in a Siberian forest not far from where they had been butchered, but in the 1990’s Russian forensic scientists were able to find a DNA match using the mtDNA of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (whose mother, born Princess Alice of Battenberg, was a maternal niece of the last tsar’s wife, Empress Alexandra). The results were said to be 99’9% accurate.

But leaving such momentous cases aside for a moment, tracing one’s direct female ancestry through an unbroken line (i.e. the mother of the mother of the mother of one’s mother, and so on) may not only reveal names and dates, but useful information when researching one’s ancestry. Don’t forget that in most societies, women traditionally raised and educated their growing families, and therefore often had closer contact with their children than their fathers would, as they would generally be away at their place of work for most of the day, earning the family’s living. It was down to the mother to teach and inform the children about the essence of life, and no doubt there would have been family legends and anecdotes which were orally passed on from mother to child.

Thinking about it, I can see very definite and specifid traits of my mother and aunts in my grandmother, and from what I’ve heard, I can see things about them all stemming from my great-grandmother. As she knew not only her mother and grandmother, but also her great-grandmother, I can get a sense of my family line plummeting down the course of history down one single, unbroken chain of females. Isn’t it odd to think that my mother knew her grandmother, who at the same time knew her great-grandmother, who was born as far back as 1816?

Caroline Louisa Burnaby, who later married the Reverend Charles Cavendish-Bentinck, and would become the maternal grandmother of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, mother of the present Queen Elizabeth II.

Another funny fact is comparing my matrilineal line to that of the Queen of England. My line can be traced back to Gabriela Gómez, my 6x great-grandmother; her date of birth remains unknown for now, but I do know that her daughter, my ancestor Maria Antonia Carleos, was born in 1773 and would live to become the proud mother of eleven children. Meanwhile, Her Majesty the Queen can “only” trace her matrilineal line to Frances Webb, a contemporary of my 5x great-grandmother, who married Thomas Salisbury in 1795. So, despite being able to boast a breathtakingly large family tree, Queen Elizabeth is only able to trace her matrilineal line one generation less than I can. And that is a somewhat proud achievement, I must say!

How far does your matrilineal line go?

This entry was posted in Birth, Death, England, Spain, United States, Women. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Going up the female line

  1. Joan says:

    Not to mention the fact – the elephant in the room – that you can be 99% sure that your mother is your genetic mother, but your father, while being an excellent father, may or may not be genetically your father….and so on backwards, historically.

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