Have you reached a dead end on one branch of your family tree–you can’t find the parents’ names? It’s a frustration the plagues just about every genealogist and family historian. Here are our top 6 sources for finding ancestors’ parents.
Genealogy Gems Podcast listener Trisha wrote in with a question about finding marriage license applications online. She hoped the original application would name the groom’s parents. Unfortunately, her search for the applications came up dry.
So, she asked, “Are there other documents that would have his parents names listed on them?“
Here’s a brainstorm for Trisha and everyone else who is looking for an ancestor’s parents’ names (and aren’t we all!).
6 Record Sources that May Name Your Ancestors’ Parents
1. Civil birth records.
I’ll list this first, because civil birth records may exist, depending on the time period and place. But in the U.S. they are sparse before the Civil War and unreliably available until the early 1900s. So before a point, birth records, which will almost always name at least one parent, are not a strong answer.
Resource: Learn more about civil birth records in my Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast episode #25.
2. Marriage license applications.
Trisha’s idea to look for a marriage license application was a good one. They often do mention parents’ names. But they don’t always exist: either a separate application form was never filled out, or it didn’t survive.
Resource: Learn more about the different kinds of marriage documents that may exist in the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast episode #24.
Obituaries or death notices are more frequently found for ancestors who died in the late 1800s or later. Thanks to digitized newspapers, it’s getting much easier to find ancestors’ obituaries in old newspapers.
- My book How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers is packed with practical tips and inspiring stories for discovering your family’s names in newsprint.
- Millions of newly-indexed obituaries are on FamilySearch (viewable at GenealogyBank).
- Get inspired with this list of 12 Things You Can Learn from Obituaries!
4. Social Security Applications (U.S.).
In the U.S., millions of residents have applied for Social Security numbers and benefits since the 1930s. These applications request parents’ names. There are still some privacy restrictions on these, and the applications themselves are pricey to order (they start at $27). But recently a fabulous new database came online at Ancestry that includes millions of parents’ names not previously included in public databases.
- Learn more about the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index
- Learn more about Social Security applications (and see what one looked like) in the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast episode #4.
5. Baptismal records.
Many churches recorded children’s births and/or the baptisms of infants and young children. These generally name one or both parents. Millions of church records have come online in recent years.
6. Siblings’ records.
If you know the name of an ancestor’s sibling, look for that sibling’s records. I know of one case in which an ancestor appeared on a census living next door to a possible parent. Younger children were still in the household. A search for one of those younger children’s delayed birth record revealed that the neighbor WAS his older sister: she signed an affidavit stating the facts of the child’s birth.
Have you found an ancestor’s parents in another way? What are your go-to resources? Share with us in the comments! Thanks for sharing this list with anyone you know who wants to find their ancestors’ parents.
More Genealogy Gems on Finding Your Ancestors in Old Records
- Missing Birth Record? Here’s What You Can Do to Track it Down Try these 2 powerful tools for finding genealogical records online!
- Finding Ancestors in Courthouse Records: Research Tips from Premium Podcast episode #128. (Premium eLearning membership required.)
About the Author
Lisa Louise Cooke is the producer and host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, and an international keynote speaker.
This article was originally posted on November 3, 2015 and updated on April 19, 2019.