Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Reader's Brick Wall

Public Service Announcement: In yesterdays blog post about the Courthouse Field Trip I forgot to mention something VERY important. If you are handling old documents yourself, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE be careful! When I was at the McDuffie County Courthouse they allowed me to look through the marriage records unsupervised. I was holding documents from the 1870s in my hands. That is a incredible responsibility. 1870s documents aren't even that old in the grand scheme of things. I can't even stress enough how careful you must be.

Facebook question from Lisa:
"Hello Michele, I ran across your page and I see that you are a professional genealogist. I am not a professional but I do trace my ancestors this is something I love to do I have been very fortunate to be able to trace my ancestors. There come to a point where I got the death certificate and no parents would be mention and of the year of birth I was told by the national archives that they didnt have the birth certificate for that year I was wondering is it any way I can find the parents if its no birth certificate.I'm constantly tracing my family line I have been able to collect my ancestors pictures by finding the present generation I scrap book my ancestors pictures as well I custom frame my pictures. Again I know that you are a professional I just like to know if you would be able to answer that question. Thank you."

It sounds like you are doing a great job finding those photographs! It is not uncommon to not find the names of the parents on a death certificate. The person that gave the information could have been a grandchild or even a neighbor that has no idea who the person's parents were.

Not knowing a general time period nor place, this advice is a bit generic. Have you found this person in the census records? That is another place you will find the parents' names.

Another place to look is the social security death index. If you ancestor appears in the index, you can order the original application which will name the parents. They will only release the names of the parents if the deceased would be over 100 years old if alive, in other words, if the person was born before 1912 they will release the names of the parents.

If the person was a male, and he was the right age to have registered for the WWI draft, you might find the name of one parent on his registration card. If he was still single and his parents were still living, it is very likely he named either his mother or his father as his next of kin.

You can check online trees at Ancestry.com. If someone has parents for your person of interest, send them a message and ask them WHERE they got the information. There are other sites for family trees as well as private websites by individuals. You can try googling your ancestor's name to find the private websites.

If you ancestor has a fairly uncommon name and you know where they were from, another option is to check the wills in that county to see if your ancestor is named in one of them as a surviving child.

You can search the newspapers and see if your person of interest is named in someone else's obituary. If doesn't even necessarily have to be the obit of one of the parents. If your person is named in a obituary as a surviving brother and the obit also lists the deceased's parents, you have a circumstantial case of your person's parents. To be able to do this you will need to search papers that are indexed (GenealogyBank, Ancestry.com, NewspaperArchive, Library of Congress etc.) since you don't have a narrow date range to search.

Depending on the state, there may be town or county level death registers that will name the parents. Someone else may have given the information for this than for the death certificate.

If you know where the person went to church, you can try church records for a birth record or baptismal certificate (depending on the denomination).

You can also look for the person's marriage record. Depending on the state (and the age of the person when they married) you just might find the parents listed.

Make sure that as you are contacting your distant relatives to collect your photographs, you ask them what they know about your person of interest. They may not think they know anything but they just might remember some little tidbit of information that was told to them that will give you a little clue.

If you know where your ancestor is buried, check to see who else is buried there. If it is a small cemetery then it is fairly easy. If he/she is buried in a large city cemetery then start with the plot where the person is buried and see who he/she is buried next to. If you are really lucky, the marker may even give you the names of the parents. If you send me some details about when and where your ancestor lived, I might be able to give you a few more sources to check.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Michelle, thanks for pointing out the care that should be used when handling older material. There are lots of resources on the Internet that explain proper handling; as a Genealogist I was surprised to find just how little of this information gets into the hands of those that are consistently in contact with material of a historic nature.

    If you're interested, I am a Consulting Archivist and am working to 'spread the word'. I've written an article for Archives.com's Expert Series and will be writing a series on this issue; I also use my blog to discuss this topic. If you have an interest in it, I'd be happy to share these with you.

    Again, thank you for making your readers aware of the care that should be taken when handling older material.

  2. That would be great, Laura! I would be more than happy to write a followup post with more information linking to your article. Let me know the URL of your blog and the URL of the article that you have already written and I will get something written up.

    I have to say, I am always scared to death when I am handling these documents. There is a local courthouse (not the one I highlighted) that was formed in 1790. They have their records in a storage room and anyone is allowed to go in there and root through the boxes. I haven't been there because I know it will just make me upset to know that they treat these documents this way. I am actually going up there Thursday with another researcher for the first time. I know I am going to get mad.