6 Ideas For Finding Her Story

Just some afternoon research thoughts on women’s studies…

In addition to my military history project on horse artillery, I’ve been sifting through primary sources and piecing together a clearer life story for Arabella W. Griffith Barlow, wife of General Francis Barlow. For years, I’ve been intrigued by her choices and courage and in the last twelve months or so have gotten serious about studying. It’s going to be so exciting to share about her life at the upcoming conference in Williamsburg hosted by the Society for Women and the Civil War, and I think I’ll continue my pursuit of information even after the event and see where it all leads. I definitely still have questions about her life that need to be answered and a few more archives to search.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about researching women during the mid-19th Century, and I wanted to share these tips in case you are tracking down information an ancestor or another historical woman. And – of course – if you have research tips, I’d love to hear them in the comments. This is how the history community grows and strengthens – as we share information and ideas on the study process along with the facts.

First, look for the woman’s papers – journals, letters, or any other primary source documentation. But sometimes, especially if she is lesser-known or “unknown”, this isn’t as simple as searching her name. If you actually find archival files with her name on them, you are lucky! Thousands of women wrote, but many surviving documents lie “hidden.” Check the family files in archives. If she was married, comb through her husband’s papers and don’t neglect the “miscellaneous” folder. Oftentimes, a woman’s letters are stored with her husband’s or other relatives’ papers and may not even show on a finding guide.

Second, figure out who her friends and neighbors were (or other people she interacted with). I have cracked some cases for the McGuire ladies’ history in Winchester, Virginia, by looking at what their neighbors wrote! Did the woman write to these friends? Are her letters saved in their archive files? Did the friends write about her?

Third, take a page from the genealogists’ handbook and figure out the woman’s family tree which can open up more archival searching options. Also, check census records but beware! One of my good friends who has researched a couple hundred girls has advised me that women often subtracted a couple years from their age when they reported to the census recorder.

Fourth, find out her maiden name. That will be how she is listed on the census prior to marriage. Also, this is a great way to search for baptism and school records. If her name appeared anywhere in public print prior to marriage, you’re probably looking for “Miss Last Name.” Search her father and mother’s names too in public notices or newspapers because sometimes it will say “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So and their daughter.”

Fifth, remember titles. If a woman’s name appeared in print during the Civil War era – newspapers, memorial articles, ladies aid society notices, etc. – it will typically be preceded by “Miss” or “Mrs.” Now, here’s where it gets fun… I had hit a wall in my research on Arabella. I just wasn’t getting much with the newspaper catalog searches of her name, and then it hit me! She was “Mrs. General Barlow.” Presto! This was an era of proper forms of address and a woman’s social identity was often linked to her husband – if she was married. Now, that I know this tip, I’ve found other treasures by searching “Mrs. Husband’s first and last name”. If he was an officer, include the rank and try a second or third search. It’s definitely worth a shot if nothing else is coming up or you suspect there should be more available in print.

The Caveat: If you search using Mrs. his name and/or rank, you must know if he had any other marriages. Arabella Barlow died in 1864, and in 1867, Frank Barlow remarried. So…”Mrs. General Barlow” who does wonderful philanthropic deeds in the 1890’s is actually Ellen Shaw Barlow, not Arabella. Though in the wonderful newspapers, they both correctly have the title “Mrs. General Barlow.” Just know you might have several different people appearing under the same name. In fact, I’ve even seen daughters-in-law mixed up with the name and title if the son had the same name as his dad. Good luck! and draw a family tree.

It’s been an thrilling journey in the late night hours to find information about Arabella Barlow, and I know I’ll keep discovering more research ideas for her story and the other civilian women whose fact files rest in my filing desk. The same attention to detail, citations, and archival catalog searching used for military or “traditional” history studies is important for women’s studies, but sometimes we have to go an extra mile to figure out where her papers, her story waits to be rediscovered.

I’d love to hear about your finds or tips for women’s studies for family history, academic research, or just because studying is fun!

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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7 Responses to 6 Ideas For Finding Her Story

  1. Excellent advice! Thank you so much for sharing! Just one question. You continue to refer to “archives”. What archives are you referring to exactly? What sources do you pull from for your research?

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Great question!
      Massachusetts Historical Society, New York Public Library, Library of Congress, Huntington Library are a few of the ones that I have either done research at or have on my “when I can travel there” list.

  2. John Pryor says:

    Love the article as usual, Sarah. But her husband is perhaps one of my least admired Civil War officers. A cold, arrogant martinet. She must have seen something in him. I wonder, has anyone done anything on the long-suffering Ellen McClellan? A wife knows her husband; she must have wondered at times if he was losing his mind.

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Barlow is a rough historical figure, but I personally think a lot of that comes from the focus that military history has placed on his hatred of stragglers and at times heavy-hand disciplinarian actions with units he was training. Primary sources suggest he won his troops’ affection and courage when he wanted to and put forth effort toward that goal. No man is without faults…

  3. Ed Cunningham says:

    I must disagree with the above characterization of Frances Barlow. He could have stayed at Harvard, like Robert Lincoln, and avoided service. But he was courageous and valiant and stuck with poor quality Dutch troops.

  4. Renee Howe says:

    Thank you for the article. This is wonderful and helpful advice.

  5. Laura Rowland says:

    Enjoyed this article full of good research tips. I look forward to reading what you find out about Arabella Barlow. I think she and her husband are fascinating characters in the story of the Civil War.

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