Proving the parents of illegitimate ancestor
Genealogy Research

Determing An Illegitimate Ancestor’s Parents

Most genealogy researchers run across illegitimacy at some point in their research.  Friends often ask me if it is possible to prove an illegitimate ancestor’s parents.

The answer: Sometimes.

Bastardy Bonds and Apprentice Bonds

Bastardy bonds and apprentice bonds  (from the colonial era up through 1913) are useful in determining one or both parents of an illegitimate child. Bastardy bonds are against the mother so you need to know the mother’s name., The father is sometimes named in these bonds if the mother is willing to name him. Apprentice bonds are also helpful.  If your ancestor was apprenticed as a child (and this could be done at a very young age) the bond often will list the parent’s child.  For example, Dulaney Swinney was apprenticed to Atkin McLemore in Granville County, NC in 1756. Dulaney was noted to be the son of Moses Swinney.  If the child’s named parent is the mother, then the child may have been born out or wedlock.  Checking the bastardy bonds would be beneficial.


The use of DNA to further genealogical research will certainly help in determining your ancestral line.  While DNA is not a paternity test and will not tell you who the father of your ancestor was, DNA can tell you what family surname you match, thus giving you  new avenues of research. 

Oral History

If the child born out-of-wedlock is acknowledged by the family, then oral history is likely accurate in naming the parent(s).  In the case of Bruce Douglas below, Bruce was well-known in the Howard family and an accepted son of Allen Suggs Howard.

Just Plain Luck

Sometimes it just comes down to luck. Continuing with the example above, Bruce’s father was known, but his mother was not. A “new” Howard cousin came across my blog and found an earlier post I had written on Bruce Douglas.  My “new” cousin sent me a copy of a  letter written by Bruce Douglas journaling his own history as a child. Up to this point no one (at least on our side of the family) knew who his mother was.  She has now been identified as Mary Dorcas Douglas who later married William Bradley.  Without Bruce’s own words and my cousin’s generosity in sharing the letter, I doubt the I would have ever learned Bruce’s mother’s name.

Transcription of Bruce’s  letter

“This is a letter history of the ______ Bruce Douglas by any one ever heard of him. He was born 1880 July 11 near BroadwayNC. My mother maried a man by the name of Bradley and left me with my Uncle and Aunt by the name of Roe Douglas and Aunt Bug Douglas. I dont remember ever seeing my mother. They my Uncle and Aunt brought me to Georgia in a covered wagon drawn by 2 mules. They went back to NC and I stayed on here. I am now 88 years old and have good health for my age. About 2 years ago I sold my Clynch County land 10150 acres for $1,300 000.00. I married Miss Lula Mizell of WoodbineGA in 1905. We had six children. The 1st boy died as an infant. I have 3 boys and 2 girls living. The youngest is 50 years old. My wife died December 26, 1959. I am in good health. I Hunt and fish. My mother lived and died near a place called Ridgeway SC. She died in 1924. I would have given any thing to of seen her. I never herd of her till after she had passed away. God Mary yes on September 2 – 1968 I placed on her grave tomb stone and slab. All so placed one on her husbands grave.” 

Colored photograph of Howard family relative Bruce Douglas. Unknown person on left.
Bruce looks amazingly like his half-siblings!

So, yes, it is possible to identify the parents of an illegitimate ancestor. It is not always easy, but it is possible.


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Black and white photo of older siblings Suggs Howard and Mary Bradley. Text reads Strategies to determine your illegitimate ancestor's parents.
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  • Sharn White

    What a wonderful find. It is always great to knock down a brick wall. Your story is quite moving and the letter is such a wonderful piece of your family history. Shows the Power of Blogging.

  • Toni

    I would love to find out the name of my paternal grandfather. My father was born in Germany, near Munich, in 1903, to an unmarried mother. He never knew his father, neither his name, age, nationality, or anything because his mother never told him. He was sent to live with his mother’s brother at a young age, and was raised by his uncle and aunt.
    My only hope is to find out about this grandfather is through Catholic Church records, as my father was baptized in the Catholic Church.
    Is there any hope that the German Catholic Church will release their records of births, baptisms, etc. like so many other countries are doing?

    • Sue

      My husband’s mother was born in Kaiserslautern, Germany in 1924 to an unwed mother and immigrated to the U S in 1950. All of her records here gave the name of her foster parents in Germany, instead of her biological parents. I sent for a copy of her German birth certificate and we were shocked to see her birth father named! Only a name, no other information but a great find. If you haven’t requested it already, try getting the birth certificate. You never know what it might tell you.

  • Andrew

    Hi Lisa,

    Any on-line search advice (I’m in Australia) for someone without any real family history? My father was born in Hildalgo County, Texas in the late 30s. His mother died when he was a young boy. He next went to live with his maternal grandmother (same county), who subsequently died when he was an early teen. I’ve found his mother’s death certificate on-line, but no other documentation of note about her or him.

    Are you aware of any other sources of documentation available on line that might indicate who his father might be?

    Thank you for your time and any ideas you may be able to share.

    Kind regards,

    • LisaL

      Andres, Unfortunately, finding online information about your father and his mother will be tough. Check Chronicling America for county and regional newspapers. I would recommend contacting the local genealogical or historical society and ask them what they might have or for any possible look ups that you need. An estate record for the grandmother should be checked for. Since he was a teen when his grandmother died, there could potentially be a guardianship record for him, but this would be a at the county level and not online. You would need someone to do a look up for you in the county courthouse for these. The Texas State Archives has some digital collections online you can check out.

      If you have not, obtain your father’s birth certificate. Father’s are named on US birth certificate provided the mother gave the name. Check with the Hildago County Register of Deeds on how to order it. Hope that helps!

  • Tania

    My dad is Robert alexander Johnny Morton
    Born 10/09/1945 – don’t know his parents names. Iam trying to find my dads family roots.
    He immigrated to SA and he got married and have 1 daughter.
    I on the other hand was a result of an affair and had to grow up with little knowledge of him.
    Now I want to know where he was born, his parents and even family in Ireland.
    I need to fill my side of my family tree

  • Marti Wilson

    If you know the wife and/or daughter’s name… you can check marriage and birth records. If he is deceased check death certificate. Usually parents names, date of birth and place of birth are listed. This will give you a starting point. Also census records sometimes give birth place and date. Immigration records. Ships log will list point of origin and where passenger is from and other information. I find online genealogy sites like Ancestry very useful in searching. Best of luck.

    • Joanne

      I ordered my grandfather’s birth certificate after my dad died to see who his dad was because he died when my grandfather was 10 and then his mom married a man who gave her kids his name. I was told the father had the same last name as my great grandmother, which is the last name my grandfather originally had, but nobody remembered his first name. The birth certificate says out of wedlock, but my great aunts had the name of the man who raised them named as the father on their records. Before she died, my aunt revealed that the man and my great grandmother never married, so it was common-law marriage. DNA results are confusing because people with ancestors named Müller could also be related to my great grandmother or just coincidental because it’s a common name. I did trace the ancestral line of Mr. Müller, but I can’t find common ancestors for any of my DNA matches and him. I’m not sure how to figure this out.

  • Tracy Saunders

    I have a questiion: During the mid-19th century, if a child was born out of wedlock, (christening notes say “bastard”) and the mother subsequently marries the father, does the child then take the father’s name automatically or continue with his mother’s name?

    Many thanks.

    • LisaL

      I’ve actually seen it happen both ways. Typically, the child did not, but in some cases, if the relationship was good, the child took the step-father’s name.

  • Madeline Douglas Simpson

    I am amazed to find this. I am the youngest granddaughter of Bruce Douglas. None of us had ever known who his father might have been so I am very surprised to read that the Howard family knew about him. We called him Bigdaddy and he was quite the character.

  • Janet Kitten

    My father was named on a birth certificate of a boy born to Gladys Ruth Gumm April 1929. He was not named and was born at a home for unwed mothers in Dallas TX
    He was adopted out. I have the birth certificate when he was born.
    I looked everywhere for him
    I’ve looked on my brothers and my DNA
    I can’t find him
    I’m thinking he’s not my fathers child

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