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 When Researching an Illegitimate Ancestor?
Before we get into the records and resources let’s talk about the terminology you might encounter in your search. Some of the terms are no longer in use today or may be found offensive in today’s culture. Remember as you read the documents and as we discuss resources, the terminology used is of that time period and not necessarily today’s use of the word.
Common vocabulary encountered referring to a child when researching illegitimate ancestors:
- Born out of wedlock
- Reputed – as in “reputed son of ”
- Imputed – as in the “imputed son of” indicates the mother was accusing the man of being the father
- Ignotus – Latin term for “unknown”; may be seen in church records
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.
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.
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 was 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 only, then the child may have been born out or wedlock.
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.
Mary Eberle of DNA Hunters talks about using DNA to find unknown parents in 7 Steps for Using DNA to Find Birth Parents of Adoptees & Others with Unknown Parents . Check out the YouTube Video, too! 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
Sometimes you will pick up on other clues in the records that your ancestor may have been born out of wedlock.
- The mother 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. It can be a very sensitive topic within a family. 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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