How to research and find an illegitimate ancestor is challenging for the most seasoned genealogy researcher. Explore these tips and types of records for clues to your ancestor's parents.
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How To Research Your Illegitimate Ancestors

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Are you researching an ancestor born out of wedlock?

Do you suspect your ancestor was illegitimate?

If your answer to either question is “Yes”, then you have encountered the difficulties in researching an illegitimate ancestor.

Is it possible to determine the parents of an illegitimate child? 


Sometimes you know one parent (typically the mother, but not always).

Sometimes you only find circumstantial evidence pointing to the potential parents. The challenge is finding which records hold the clues you need.

What types of genealogy records should you pursue?

Oral History

Often oral history provides the best clues to identifying if your ancestor is illegitimate and/or who the parents are.

One of the interesting things I found in pursuing illegitimate ancestors, is what was common knowledge in one generation is not necessarily passed down to the next generation or two.  This makes sense.  Illegitimacy was (and still can be) a very sensitive topic and not one generally talked about openly.

Explore your family’s oral history surrounding your illegitimate ancestor.  Reach out to collateral descendants, especially the older generations. The same oral history stories and information may have passed down a collateral line in your family but their version can hold different clues. 

[In every case where I discovered an illegitimate ancestor’s parents, reaching out to distant cousins proved crucial.]

Be sensitive in your questions when looking for information. My experience proved one aunt had no problems talking about an illegitimate ancestor, while her cousin deftly changed the topic of conversation each time the subject was broached.

Vital Records

If you are researching in fairly “modern” times when birth and death certificates were being issued, be sure to check those.  Often the father is not listed or listed as “unknown”, but you may get lucky and find the father’s name listed. Even a partial name will provide you a valuable clue.

Church Records

Evidence of a child born our of wedlock  may be found within church records. If you do not know the child’s mother, the church records may help. A woman who had a child out of wedlock may have been censored or excommunicated from the church. Check what records are available for the location you are researching. Are there any women being disciplined by the church for having an illegitimate child around the time your ancestor was born. Or if you know the mother, do you find her being disciplined? You can pick up clues to her identity here.

Bastardy Bonds and Apprentice Bonds

Bastardy bonds and apprentice bonds  (from the colonial era up through 1913 in NC) 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.

Researching illegitimate ancestors is challenging for genealogy researchers. Explore these tips and resources for clues to your ancestor's parents.

DNA Testing

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 potentially provide you with a surname or line you match. DNA can  give you  new avenues of research.

For an excellent DNA resource, I recommend The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine Bettinger.

Consider Other Potential Clues When Researching Your Illegitimate Ancestor

  • The mother sometimes named the child after the father giving you a clue to potential father candidate.
  • Was money involved?  If the child’s father was from a wealthy family, a woman may have sued for money to support the child.  Check the court records. [Note: Outside of bastardy bonds, I rarely find this to be the case.]
  • Illegitimate children usually took the mother’s surname. In cases where they took the father’s surname, the father generally acknowledged the child.


Researching ancestors born out of wedlock is not easy or quick. Sometimes the best we can do is build a circumstantial case with the clues we do find. Then we wait for the next bit of information…..

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How to research and find an illegitimate ancestor is challenging for the most seasoned genealogy researcher. Explore these tips and types of records for clues to your ancestor's parents.


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  • Janelle Holmes

    I have an illegitimate ancestor, the result of a rape of my 12 year old ancestress by her cousin. Family tradition always said Wm Johnson was her father. When I found her marriage record at the same age to another man, giving consent by her mother and father, both named, I discovered Wm. Johnson was her father. Later research proved that her rapist and father of my ancestor, was the son of her father’s full brother, who seems to have left the state shortly thereafter, married and had other children. All these children, including my ancestor are named in a lawsuit brought against his estate. This is how I discovered his father. Since his surname was the maiden name of his mother as well as his biological father, this would not have provided me with information as to the surname of his father if I hadn’t found this document. My ancestor only lived with his mother and her husband for 10 years or so and then seems to have gone to live with his grandfather. To confound matters, when he married he lied about his age, making himself closer to his much older wife in years. He was actually about 8 years younger, but the lie continued the remainder of his life.

    On researching my husband’s line I did discover a bastardy bond from the 1600s showing that a certain young woman and her sister had two children each by two neighboring brothers. You think they would have learned. Neither of these women married either of the brothers, either.

  • Clorinda Madsen

    I have a case in my tree where son #1 was born the year dad died. Son #2 was born 4 years later but given the same surname. Many have assumed that meant dad didn’t die until after son #2 was born, but he was quite clearly dead 4 years prior in a very infamous manner. I will have to look into some of these methods to see whether we can figure things out without DNA. Since I’m not descended from that side, chances are, somebody else will have to ultimately solve/confirm things.

  • Joanne

    My grandfather was the first-born, a little more than a year after his mom arrived in NYC. Then they moved to Philly and more kids came before their dad died. His mom married two years later and her husband adopted the kids. We didn’t know about my great grandfather other than his last name was the same as my great grandmother’s, so I ordered my grandfather’s birth certificate. I was shocked when it said out of wedlock. My aunt said everyone knew they never married but they didn’t talk about it. Strangely, his name was on the other kids’ birth certificate. I’m not even sure he is my grandfather’s dad because he is the only great grandparent I can’t find a single DNA match for. It’s possible I just got the wrong names of his family members in Germany, but I don’t know if there’s any way to determine if the guy I always thought was my great grandfather really is. He also stated in his will that they were married a year after my grandfather was born, which adds more confusion.

    • LisaL

      It’s so hard to untangle family mysteries like this when the the people who knew the answers are no longer around to answer our questions.

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