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.
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.
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.
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.