Now What: How to Find Your Ancestor’s Parents

Now What: How to Find Your Ancestor’s Parents

Without the right records, you might struggle to take your family tree back another generation. Here's how you can find your ancestor's parents without birth or marriage certificates.
Learn how to find ancestors' parents, even without birth or marriage certificates.
Image courtesy the Library of Congress

Q: How do you find a person’s parents if you can’t find his birth or marriage certificate?

Finding an ancestor’s parents when vital records run out often requires a two-step process. First, you need to identify parent candidates who might plausibly fit. Examine censuses, old newspapers, land records and published histories for individuals with the same (or a similar) surname who lived in the right place at the right time. You don’t necessarily have to go all the way back to your known ancestor’s childhood years. (Offspring tended to live near their parents well into adulthood.) You’ll be looking primarily for potential fathers, with hopes of identifying their spouses later. For example, if ancestor Joel Stowe lived in Surry County, NC, in the 1840s, and you find a nearby Abraham Stow 1840 census at about the right age to be Joel’s father, consider Abraham a candidate.

Once you have a name to investigate, step two is to explore documents that might prove a link between Abraham and Joel. Ideally, you’d find Abraham’s will naming Joel as an heir. Failing that, look in land records for transactions involving Abraham that also mention Joel—perhaps identified as his son. Other possible resources include family Bibles and (depending on ages) Revolutionary War pensions.

If Abraham left a widow, try to link her to Joel. Work sideways, too. If you know the names of Joel’s brothers and sisters, look for evidence that Abraham was their father.

Look for resources specific to the area you’re researching. For example, in North Carolina, the state archives and state library’s Digital Collections include marriage and death notices, family Bibles, cemetery records and submitted genealogies. Also check for links on the FamilySearch Wiki entry for North Carolina.

A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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  1. I have a similar problem. My GGGG grandparents (William & Mary) came over from Ireland between 1833 and 1836 (based on birth places and ages of kids) and landed in Eastport Maine. However, Eastport records were lost, twice!, in the late 1800s erasing all records that might have helped.

    Finding parent candidates of William are questionable. Finding candidate couples has proven a challenge as it seems EVERYONE with that surname (or other similar) had sons named William that married a woman named Mary. Literally – over 100. Have yet to find a William & Mary in records with the 3 named kids born in Ireland. I have to believe that as more records get digitized something will eventually pop up.

    I’ve broken through a lot of weird barriers for other lines but this one continues to stymie.