Recently we shared 6 sources that may name an ancestor’s parents. Afterward, I got a follow-up email from Lynn, who is still stumped:
“I read these [suggestions] but none of these were of any help with finding records on my grandmother[‘s parents]. The Social Security record didn’t list her father; as far as I can find there are no birth records for her where she claims she was born. Her father’s name isn’t on her death record because mom didn’t know what her grandfather’s name was. And her mom & ‘grandmother’ disappear from the Detroit city directory about the time she would have been born. They only show up again two years later for her grandmother and five years later for her mother. I put her ‘grandmother’ in quotes because that may be a sham: my grandmother’s mom worked for the other lady as a live-in servant.”
Lynn sounds a little discouraged! When typical record sources don’t reveal what we want to know, it’s often time to try two more advanced approaches: cluster research and DNA.
Applying Cluster Research to “Missing Parents”
I’m guessing Lynn has already beaten the bushes for ANY other records on grandma’s mom, especially marriage and divorce records. But I’m wondering whether she’s looked for other records about the woman grandma’s mom worked for. I don’t know the exact timing, but there was a huge migration to Detroit in the early 1900s. These two ladies could have been from anywhere. Chances are good they were from the same place, though. She’s definitely a “person of interest” to research. Records about this employer/grandma may lead to clues about her grandma’s own origins. So a first step may be for Lynn to research where the employer/grandma was born, and see if grandma’s family name shows up in the same place.
That concept is called cluster research, where you try to recognize little migratory groups and use other members of the group to learn more about your own ancestor of primary interest. It’s a concept I talk with Gems Editor Sunny Morton about in the November 2015 Family Tree Magazine podcast, which I host.
DNA for “Missing Parents”
The other avenue that it may be time for Lynn to try is DNA testing. Depending on which test she takes, her results may lead to common relatives on either side of her grandmother’s mother’s family. For example, if grandma had a full-blooded brother (which may be impossible to know for sure), a DNA test on one of his male descendants may point to the identity of the unknown grandma’s dad.
I recommended to Lynn that she check out our series of DNA guides written by our resident DNA expert, Diahan Southard. They will walk you confidently through the next steps in your genetic genealogy journey.
How to Get Started Using DNA for Family History Research
More Skills You Can Use to Solve Genealogy Mysteries
- Try These Two Powerful Tools for Finding Genealogy Records
- Advanced Google Search Strategies for Adoptees in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode #128 (Premium website membership required)
- “Help! Why Is My Ancestor Listed Twice in the Census?”
Have you reached a dead end on one branch of your family tree–you can’t find the parents’ names? Check out these sources for finding ancestors’ parents.
Recently Genealogy Gems podcast listener Trisha wrote in with this 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. Learn more about civil birth records in my free Family History 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. Learn more about the different kinds of marriage documents that may exist in the Family History Made Easy podcast episode #24.
3. Obituaries. 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 SO 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. I blogged about it here. Learn more about Social Security applications (and see what one looked like) in the show notes for my free Family History 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. Learn more about birth and baptism records created by churches in the Family History Made Easy Podcast Episode #26. Click these links to read more about baptismal records in Quebec and Ireland.
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.
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 Genealogy Records Online
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.
Recently, Genealogy Gems Premium member Mary Ann shared some beautiful family history crafts with us. One is this exquisite family history photo display she made for a cousins’ gift exchange. It’s a collage concept that incorporates pictures with mementos and meaningful embellishments, but in a beautifully orderly fashion.
“This was so easy to make,” Mary Ann wrote. “The hardest part was rounding up the photos I wanted to use, then sizing them to fit the appropriate little openings. I use Photoshop Elements for my photos and digital scrapbooking so I cropped and sized the photos there, put them all into one larger page so I could print all at once, printed a draft on printer paper to make sure the photos were the correct size then printed my good version on photo paper.
“When I made the photo tray a few years ago, I found the tray in my local Archiver’s scrapbooking store. Archiver’s has since closed their retail stores but they sell online. I was looking at their site last night and found the same item for sale that I used in my project. Here is the link to the item.
“I cut out my photos, some of which filled the entire little opening, but if they didn’t, I added some scrapbook paper as a background to those. The “generations” and “ancestry” tags, as well as the ovals, flowers and key, are all scrapbooking embellishments. I used little pieces of ribbon under the outhouse photo, as a bow on the key and to cover the “handle” of the tray. I had some leftover lace I used to trim the bottom of the box. I copied a piece of a census record that showed my grandparents’ names and some of my aunts and uncles. I used acid-free double sided tape made for scrapbooking to attach it all. And I found the little frame to put on my grandfather’s photo.”
Mary Ann also hopes to create a photo tray like this for her son’s school photos (she saw the idea online) but hasn’t gotten to it yet. But she got a lot of mileage out of the one she did finish. “I made a total of 6 of these, all alike, and gave the remainders later as Christmas gifts to my mom, an aunt and a couple cousins,” she tells us. “And I was even clever enough to keep on for myself. My aunt told me she cried when she opened it and saw what it was.”
I remember little display trays like this being popular in the 1970s or 1980s, too. I’ve seen them at resale and antique shops, and tucked away in friends’ basements and attics. You may be able to find vintage trays that are less-expensive than the new ones. This inspiring idea made me wonder what mementos, tiny memorabilia, embellishments and even photocopied genealogy records I would tuck into my own version of this project.