Discover how a death record can help you find evidence of an ancestor's birth


03 October 2022
A will can provide valuable information on relationships between various family members
If you want to find an ancestor's birth, you need their birth certificate or baptism record. But what if these aren't available? David Annal explains how exploring records related to a death could actually point you in the direction of evidence of a birth...

We’ve all experienced it. We’re researching a new family and we’re working back generation-by-generation, looking for details of each ancestor’s birth, marriage and death so we can begin to tell the stories of their lives. It’s all going swimmingly and then suddenly we run into a brick wall. Our search for Mary’s origins or for a record of Thomas’s birth fails to turn up anything promising. 

We may try a different search and quickly solve the problem but what if we don’t? What if, years later, we’re still looking and we still can’t find what we’re looking for? 

The search for evidence

Birth records are vital to our research: an essential component in our ongoing pursuit of our ancestors, providing the vital evidence that links us from one generation to an earlier one and it’s the failure to find the link that forms the essence of the classic family history brick wall. So, as all good researchers should, we continue to search.  

But there’s a danger that in our desperate search for our ancestor’s origins we get too fixated on the idea of finding a record of their birth when what we’re actually looking for is evidence of their birth, or at least, evidence of their parentage.  

There are any number of reasons why a record of someone’s birth may not be findable:

  • The record may have been lost or so badly damaged as to be unreadable
  • It may have been mistranscribed making it effectively untraceable
  • It may simply not have been digitised and made available online: you might have to do some research to track down the physical location of a particular register, in a library or record office. Remember, however good the online coverage is nowadays, the material that we can access on the internet it is far from being a comprehensive record of what’s out there.  

Of course the record may never have existed in the first place and we mustn’t ignore the very strong possibility that the person we’re looking for was born with a different name to the one that he or she routinely used in later life. 

Evidence of parentage

So, what does evidence of parentage look like and where might we find it? We need to be a bit careful here as some of this evidence, for example evidence from a census record, isn’t necessarily reliable. Someone could easily be recorded as a son when they were actually a stepson, or a nephew, grandson or adopted son. This could be due to a clerical error, ignorance or wilful deception (or a combination of the three) but either way, the discovery of someone listed in a census return as the son or daughter of the head of the household (remember this doesn’t necessarily mean that they were the son or daughter of the wife of the head of the household) will always represent an important clue in our quest.  

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One of the best places to find evidence of parentage is in our ancestors’ wills. Wills are packed full of relationships; understandably so, as it was important – in order to avoid possible disputes – that the identities of the beneficiaries were well-established. 

Newspapers can also be a good source of this information, particularly for our poorer ancestors who might have had frequent brushes with the law. Similarly, records of the Poor Law authorities, both before and after the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834. 

Text extracted from an in-depth article on exploring evidence in the November 2022 issue of Family Tree. Get your copy here.

About the author

David Annal has been involved in the family history world for more than 30 years and is a former principal family history specialist at The National Archives. He is an experienced lecturer and the author of a number of best-selling family history books, including Easy Family History and (with Peter Christian) Census: The Family Historian’s Guide. David now runs his own family history research business, Lifelines Research.