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Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

Readers’ Questions – Answering YOUR Burning Genealogy Questions

Have genealogy questions? Answering YOUR genealogy research questions about finding vital records, name changes and starting overseas genealogy research.

I receive a lot of reader questions in my email.  You guys ask some of the best questions! I read every email and answer as many as I possibly can.

Often readers have the same or similar questions, so I thought it would be best to answer some of your questions here in a post. I have tried to pick questions that are representative of common questions and/or frustrations.  

woman with question mark for genealogy questions

Question #1 – My great grandmother had two sons born out of wedlock and have her last name.  Can’t seem to get past this hiccup. – Margaret

Researching ancestors born out of wedlock can be tough.  Sometimes the answer is not found. (Sad, but true.) One thing that trips researchers up is the child’s last name.  Typically, a child born out of wedlock took the mother’s last name.  Even if the father’s identity was common knowledge, the child used the mother’s name.  The exception to this is when the father acknowledged and/or accepted the child or if the father and mother lived in what essentially became a common law marriage.

Be sure to consider that siblings born out of wedlock could have had different fathers.

photo of 2 women from 1890's
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DNA and genetic genealogy has opened up new avenues of research of the illegitimate ancestor. Usually your genealogy research will not be complete without utilizing DNA testing. AncestryDNA , MyHeritage DNA and FamilyTreeDNA are great testing options.

Find more details in the post:  Determining An Illegitimate Ancestor’s Parents .

Question #2 – My biggest frustration is when I can’t find birth or death records….. – Bonnie

Perhaps one of the most common theme of genealogy questions involves finding – or not – finding birth and death records for an ancestor. Often I see researchers searching for records that do not exist.  For example, birth certificates and death certificates are fairly modern records. NC did not require the use of birth certificates until 1913 and even then compliance was inconsistent until the WWI.

When searching for birth or death records, know what records were created for the time and place of the event. Don’t spend time searching for a birth certificate for an ancestor born in 1896.  It did not exist. Other types of records will need to be used to determine that ancestor’s birth date.

Keep in mind, there will be times when you cannot find an actual birth date and will need to infer a birth year (or even a range of years) from the records. For example, an estate record can give you the dates of the estate sales, bonds, etc, but often does not give the specific date the individual died on. It can, but in my experience usually does not. 

I have lots of good resources for you here at Are You My Cousin? to help find death and birth records.

For more information on finding birth and death records start with  How To Determine Your Ancestor’s Birth Date (Even When No Birth Record is Found) and  Your Guide to Finding An Ancestor’s Date of Death . Learn more about what types of records genealogy researchers can use in this video.


Question #3 – I no longer have anyone in my family to interview, they have all passed away or have dementia. – Sheila

This is unfortunately often the reality for many researchers.  Oral history is an important step in the research process when it is available. While not always accurate, oral history does hold clues to a family’s history and unique stories.  

I encourage you not to pass up an opportunity to interview a family member with dementia or a memory issue. Sometimes the long term memories are still intact.

One tip to facilitate your interview or informal chat with your relative is to start with a family photograph. Often used in reminiscence therapy for those with impaired cognition/memory, photos can spark a conversation and also serve as an ice breaker for any conversation. 

For more on interviewing a relative with dementia, check out these tips: 5 Tips for Interviewing a Family Member With Dementia.

Question #4 – Name spellings, name changes and different names…. – Lots of readers!

Questions about your ancestors’ names come from many readers! Spellings and different forms of my ancestors’ names confused me so much in the early years of genealogy research.  Still do, sometimes! Don’t worry, all is not lost. 

Do not get too locked in on one way to spell your ancestor’s name. Spelling was not really standardized (at least genealogically speaking) until the 1900’s and even then  not always. When a census taker or other record recorder wrote your ancestor’s name, they may have spelled the name as they presumed the name was spelled. Record keepers also did not have great handwriting all the time.  This can cause transcription errors and cause the researcher not to recognize an ancestor in a database or index. Try using a wildcard search when searching for troublesome names in the genealogy databases.

Do not miss recognizing your ancestor in the records because they used one name at home or in their cultural community and one name in the formal American records.  If you have an immigrant ancestor, he/she may have gone by one name – their birth name – in the family and religious community, but may have chosen to go by a more Americanized name in the formal records of their new homeland. 

1910's couple - genealogy questions answered

Learn more about troublesome names in  You Suspect Your Ancestor Changed His Name, Now What? and How To Research Your Common Surname Ancestors .

Question #5 I’m just starting researching my ancestors back in their European homeland. Is it possible to search those non-English records and/or how to I find a translator?

You’ve done it!  You have tracked your ancestor back to their homeland, but a new challenge exists in your research. You do not read German or French or Latin, etc. What do you do?  

For the basic records such as church records, birth records, etc, using a genealogy word list will be a big help. These are lists of genealogy related words in a specific language and their translations. These allow you to read those column headings. Examples of the words might be “birth date”, “parents”, “godparents”, “Place of birth”. 

Genealogy word lists are surprisingly easy to find with a google search.  Use search terms such as “French genealogy word list”. 

When you move beyond the basic records into things like estate records, deeds and text heavy document, I encourage you to seek out a professional genealogist with expertise in that country. Understanding and analyzing a document for all the clues is more than just understanding the words. You need to understand the laws behind the creation of that document.

***Please note that this post contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission if you decide to purchase a product/service. This does not cost you extra. Be assured I only recommend products/services that I use and think you would like too. Read my disclosure policy and privacy policy.

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  • Cheryl

    I’m glad you take on these questions. I have a dilemma that I haven’t been able to solve for 40 years.

    My great-grandmother Lydia Jane Smith was born 1833 in Kentucky or MIssouri – she stated both in the census records. She was married to John Holt in Scioto County, Ohio, in 1852. Family lore says John went to Missouri and met her, then brought her back and married her in Ohio. I haven’t found her or John in the 1850 or 1860 census, though by the 1870 census they had a farm in Scioto Co. and lived there for the remainder of their lives, with Lydia dying in 1904. I’ve gone through the census records using every variation I ever saw for her name – Letty, Lydie, Letta, you name it. I can’t find a death record for her, and there was only a small death notice in a local paper with no details. And of course her last name was Smith.

    Can you advise any avenues of research for this tallest of brick walls?

    • LisaL

      Cheryl, This is a tall brick wall. Here are a couple of thoughts that come to mind. Consider she went by her middle name and search records for a Jane Smith. Also, Focus on the Smiths in the census records and see if you can determine any potential candidates to be her parents. With both states given as a birth place, maybe pay special attention to areas that may have been caught up in a border change. Then research those potential candidates. That’s tedious and time consuming, I know! I’ve picked up some valuable clues using that technique. This is a tough one!

  • Shannon Boelter


    I have hard time with my McDonnell side family. Every time I try find my Great-great-grandpa Patrick McDonnell’s birthplace in Ireland and his parents. I always got stuck and hit the wall. Help? I find some from websites, but they seemly to be incorrect info.


    • LisaL

      If Patrick was the immigrating ancestor, make sure you research him thoroughly here in America – his records, the records of his children, and even the community he lived in for potential clues. For Irish resources, FindMyPast has some excellent resources in their blog. Irish research can be tricky since they had such a large record loss. FindMyPast also has a good collection of Irish research records.

  • MaryAnn McCollum McNees

    I have been on the search of my great grandfather for about 9 yrs. The only information have, came from my Grandfather’s death certificate and it gave his name as David. Where do I go to look for his information? Thanks. MaryAnn

    • LisaL

      Maryann, Assuming the men shared the same surname, census records are the next best place to look. Also, check for wills and estate records for potential candidates.

  • Joan Abram

    I’m looking for my great grandmothers parents. she was born in 1870 in Arkansas and died in 1941 in Arkansas. her name is Mary Angeline (Lawrence) sanders. I’ve looked everywhere but can’t find them. please help me. joan.

  • c samples

    I have been looking for my grandparents for over 20 years.i am now 85 and would like to pass this info on down to my wfamily.they were born in west virginia or around 1870 his name was john samples and her name was ann keenr he died around 1912 so I am told .is there any way to find records on this?

    • LisaL

      I’m going to put your question in our Facebook group and follow up. I’m sure we have some WV researchers who can help out.

  • Kathleen Bergeron

    My paternal great grandmother on my grandmother’s line died very young (34) leaving 6 children. Grandma was 7 and swore she was never taken to a headstone nor did she ever know where her mother was buried. I have tried everything to find out but despite all my efforts ( I even tried writing to funeral homes in the surrounding area) there is nothing to be found. She died in 1904 or 5 so I assume that is the reason why there was no DC— but it bothers me not knowing why she died or where she was laid to rest. Any suggestions?

  • Jim Shirey

    My great grandfather’s mother died in 1869 and left him (a child of 8) property in Gratiot County, Michigan. There are probate records for his father requesting and being granted guardianship so that he could handle the estate….and sell the property. The son (Gustavus V Meyer) was supposedly the son of immigrant Jacob L Meyer and his wife Susannah. But if so, why when Susannah died was there property in her son’s name but not her husbands? If Gustavus was Jacob’s biological son, would guardianship be an issue? And to further muddy up the issue, a later (1870) warranty deed from Jacob Meyer and “wife Susannah” Meyer took place. If she was dead she would not be a party on the deed, correct? If he remarried a different Susannah, I can find no record of it. But mostly because of the probate issue and an 8 year old inheriting property from his mother, I’m thinking the first Susannah was his biological mother and that he was probably adopted by Jacob Meyer. I haven’t found any evidence of marriages or death record of Susanna…Cannot even find the family in 1860 or 1870 census yet.
    fyi: Gustavus V Meyer ( 1860-1897), mother Susannah Meyer (?-1869), father Jacob L Meyer (1818-1880). Jacob came from Switzerland in 1854 (we have his passport papers)

    • LisaL

      The mother Susannah could have inherited property from her own parents prior to the marriage. In some cases, when a woman had property coming into a marriage and wanted it protected, a marriage contract could be drawn up so she retained ownership. Then it could be left to her child. You may want to look for evidence of that around the marriage year.

  • Kevin Bowen

    I am having a hard time finding a marriage certificate (if there is one) for my grandparents.
    My mother was born in June 1924-Galesburg Ill. and her mother was ~16 and her father was ~22. I “assumed” that there would have been a shotgun wedding of sorts but I am not sure and my mother has passed on so I cannot ask her. Only clue I have is the 1930 census shows my mother and grandmother living with my great grandmother and my grandmother has a “D” by her name. So with that D -divorced I came up with having been married? I have tried all around Illinois Michigan Wisconsin Indiana to see if there was some type of marriage. None on record any place but one lady said that it might have been a secret marriage by a court and then sealed?
    Any help is appreciated

    • LisaL

      It’s very possible they were not married. Sometimes, women would use the “D” or “W” on records to explain the absence of a husband. It was more socially acceptable than being abandoned or have a child out of wedlock. I’m not familiar with sealed marriage records or why one would be sealed.

  • SG

    I have found great census records for my family, but they seemed to have often lived in places where no street name is given on the census. How do I translate a Ward # and a house # on the census (here, the 1920 census) into a street address? Is this possible? I would love to do a Google Map pic of the home, if it still exists.

  • Hubert Williams

    I’m researching family tree and can’t understand why surname changed between generations. Starting at Maternal Grand mother the surname (nee) was Fitzgerald which was the family name of her father, her Grand Father was Fitzgerald, her Great Grand Father was Fitzgerald but, with her Great-Great Grand Parents it became Paquet (Husband) / Bradeur (Wife); then with her Great-Great-Great Grand Parents reverted back to Fitzgerald when we reach her Great-Great-Great-Great Grand parents surnames changed to Dumphy (Husband) / Daisley (Wife) and swithed again at Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grand Parents to Paquet (Husband) / Boudreau (Wife). Since the male always keeps his family name at marriage I don’t understand how the surname canged after these marriages when Fitztgerald was not on eithr side of the pairing. Very confused.

  • Meredith Ann pincence

    I have a question .I had a twin brother and in very puzzled as to what happened to him from first grade up to 9 th grade. I assumed twins were in the same grade but differ5 classes, MY sister won’t give me a straight answer what I’d like to know is there any school records or something that’ll help me with this.he died in 2012.he also disappeared after the death of our mother.

    • LisaL

      You won’t be able to find individual student records, but you might try yearbooks and school news in newspapers to see if you can get a clue.

  • Charles j Semowich

    I am the 13th Great Grandson of James IV of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth II is the 12th Great Granddaughter of James IV, I wonder what my relation would be with Queen Elizabeth II? Thanks.

  • Jim Burress

    I have one percent Cameroon DNA which I know is from my mother’s side. How many generations back would that be?

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