Linking Parents and Children—Without the Help of Vital Records

Photograph of children from the author’s family tree. From top left: Amy Hart, Vivian Hart, Harriet Hart (center), Florence Hart, Mary-Elizabeth Hart. C. 1909, Westwood, New Jersey.

On November 2, 2022, my husband and I welcomed our first child: a son, named Jack William for his great-grandfathers. Several weeks after Jack’s birth, I requested a copy of his birth certificate from the town offices, an errand which immediately reminded me of submitting vital records requests for genealogical research. Obtaining my son’s birth record was far simpler—I only had to wait a few minutes—and I left the town offices that same day with the record in hand. I looked down at the certificate, with all the fields neatly filled out, and realized genealogical researchers are perhaps the only people who wouldn’t take this record for granted.

Vital records are often the first and best places to check when seeking information about our ancestors. But what is a researcher to do when a vital record simply doesn’t exist, or provides minimal information? In a previous blog post, I discussed the usefulness of family Bibles as vital records substitutes. There are numerous other record types that link parents and their children, with baptismal records and wills being the next best options. Other records that can identify the names of an ancestor’s children include the following types:


Not surprisingly, many historical land transactions occurred between parties who were related to each other. This is most evident when grantor and grantee share a last name, though it is common to find documentation of in-laws, cousins, and more distant kin exchanging land as well. Some deeds explicitly refer to the relationship between the grantor and grantee, usually in the case of a father conveying land to a son or daughter. Look for land transactions occurring within a few years of an ancestor’s death, in which heirs of the decedent sell off their interests in the estate. Sometimes out-of-state or otherwise incapacitated heirs will grant power of attorney to a third party, who will conduct the land sale on their behalf.

Historical land deeds for most U.S. states are available on Family Search at the county level. The states of Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island organize their deeds at the town level.

Chancery Records

Black’s Law Directory defines chancery cases as those in which “justice is administered according to fairness as contrasted with the strictly formulated rules of common law.” Unlike civil cases, chancery suits are decided by a judge, not a jury, and include debt, divorce, and estate disputes. Fortunately for genealogists, the complex nature of administering justice based on moral principles generates an extensive volume of paperwork. Documents in a chancery court file may include affidavits from relatives, friends, and neighbors of the plaintiff and/or defendant, correspondence, or copies of wills and plats.

One notable collection of chancery court records is called Virginia Memory: Chancery Records Index, accessible through the Library of Virginia. You can search the collection by surname, and narrow your results by county or year range.


An obvious—though sometimes overlooked—step in identifying an ancestor’s children is to search for a death notice, estate notice, or obituary. While the earliest mortuary notices usually do not give much information aside from the subject’s death date and age, late nineteenth- and twentieth-century notices are more likely to acknowledge the decedent’s heirs. Major repositories to check include Newspaper ArchiveGenealogy BankChronicling America (Library of Congress), and (Ancestry). Some historical newspaper subscription sites, like Genealogy Bank, even allow the researcher to narrow search results to articles tagged as obituaries. If a search of online newspaper databases fails to produce results, check the websites for county and local libraries in the vicinity of your ancestor’s residence. Through library websites, you will sometimes be able to access locale-specific newspaper databases for free. If online databases are not available, you can contact reference staff to inquire about historical newspaper coverage on microfilm.

Cemetery Records

Find A Grave is an excellent resource for locating ancestral graves, but it is important to remember not all memorials listed represent an actual grave. Be wary of memorials that lack tombstone photographs, and use the “Request photo” button to be paired with a local volunteer who can scout the area for your ancestor’s plot. Once the family plot is located, there is a good chance you will find parents buried with at least some of their children; this is especially true in the event of a young child’s death. Also check city and state archives for collections of local cemetery records, which typically consist of documents like burial permits, interment orders, deeds, and lot sales: all documents which may infer, if not outright state, relationships between the person authorizing or paying for the interment and the deceased.

Locating the children of our ancestors who lived before the implementation of modern vital registration systems can seem a daunting task—but that’s what makes the discovery of a revealing land record, court document, newspaper article, or cemetery record even more gratifying!

About Jennifer Shakshober

Jen Shakshober earned a dual BA in English and Economics from Westfield State University, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bennington College, and a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University. She is currently pursuing an MLIS in Archives Management from Simmons University. Her past research has involved nineteenth and twentieth-century Vermont records from local and state-level repositories. Most recently she wrote two articles about the murder of labor organizer Joseph Shoemaker for The Walloomsack Review, a biannual publication of the Bennington (Vt.) Museum, and she is always interested in crafting narrative genealogical reports.

12 thoughts on “Linking Parents and Children—Without the Help of Vital Records

  1. With out vital records is a time driven subject based on the civil record keeping and often mandated by laws requiring compliance by local clerks at many civil posts. I noticed that you left out Church records as a source. While very complete when found the main key is a known Church affiliation and as a compliment to the records of travelling ministers who helped organize Churches in area where the local population expressed and interest. In the state of NY early Churches had to incorporate before acquiring any land or structures for Church purposes. Those papers included the structure of those responsible for the operation of the Church. Pew deeds were often generated by families who bought pews for use in the Church. Presbyterian day books, noted admission, baptisms, discharged because of relocating members and often noted to where and sometimes where. There are many other sources that will also help to determine relationships. Sold for one dollar and with the phrase for good and valuable services is also a tip that the buyer and seller had some connection.. Hope this helps

  2. I keep forgetting familysearch has so much available for browsing that isn’t indexed on their name-search page. Those deeds will keep me busy.

  3. I recently broke through a brick wall with help from family bible records, so I echo that recommendation, with an emphasis on records that were being kept as the family’s life events unfolded (as opposed to someone back-filling it with data they believe to be true, but for people in earlier generations that they never met.)

    However, when it comes to obituaries and Find-a-Grave, they should be taken with a grain of salt. Cases in point:

    I know a family where the siblings don’t all get along (not uncommon) and when their mother died, a sister was left off the list of survivors in the obit. She said didn’t really care about that, but all I could think at the time was, “someone is going to get really confused by this, and think that it may prove that she wasn’t really part of this particular family.”

    Find-a-Grave is like Wikipedia – anyone can put anything at all in there. Again, as noted, getting photos of the gravestones is ideal. However, people link family members in there by relationship, and just because the dates match the stone (which may also be inaccurate, but should be pretty close), it doesn’t mean they are matching up the right relationships if they’re asserting a family connection that isn’t part of the burial information.

    Anyone who’s used Ancestry knows that you can get “hints” based on other people’s family trees, which we shouldn’t take as fact – a lot of bad information is perpetuated that way – Find-a-Grave is a little like that.

    1. Thank you! Also a LOT of material is inserted years (or centuries) later by descendents or just interested people. Some information is inserted on the stone by misinformed family members. So all such treasures (and they are) should be treated with caution.

  4. Just remember that mistakes can be found in vital records and in Find a Grave information. Always look to verify. Information is only as accurate as the knowledge and memory of the person giving that information.

    1. I rarely trust Find-a-Grave beyond the information in the images. Too much erroneous guesswork on that site!

    2. family bibles can also be suspect: some relatives may be missing or details inaccurate; it all depends on the recorder…

  5. I have been trying to find records to validate every single one of the connections I am make in my family tree all the way back to the 1600s. as Sarah says there are many mistakes, some so obvious they shouldn’t have been included in the first place, But they perpetuate because people use them without checking whether they even make sense, (dates or place) because ancestries logarithm keeps offering them up you have to keep rejecting them. and people accept onto them without further thought. generally, I take only information where I am able to find the supporting documentation but in some cases that is not always possible.

    My approach is to consider first whether or not hint is logical and then to try and dig to find the supporting detail (wills, census reports, ship logs, birth, death, marriage and certificates, birth, death and marriage registries, church membership records, graveyard recirds, birth announcements in the paper, etc. It gets complicated when there are multiple people in the same town or area as your ancestors with the same names. and, well all the resources mentioned in this article are good places to go, I have a few points in my tree that I still struggle with because my relatives in that line were laborers, and servants and did not own property of any kind or have a family Bible to pass on.

    So, for example, I know one of my relatives father’s name and his mother’s name from that great grandfather 4x removed from that man’s last marriage certificate found in the Wisconsin vital records (he was married five times). I can validate his mother’s existence and death by graveyard records. but, I have not found the primary source or secondary source to validate his fathers. I’ve only been able to validate which Jonathan Briggs was not his father and, I’ve been able to find what ancestry says is his sisters grave. But I have not been able to find any corroborating evidence of him other than early census records. He just disappears into thin air.

    Curious to know if anyone has any experience with sites other than Ancestry, where they think the logarithm does a better job?

  6. FindAGrave listed a brother and sister in my family as husband and wife just because they were buried next to each other and had the same last name. You have to be very careful with that database but what a great place to meet potential cousins!

  7. Regarding a Find-a-Grave situation: I recently had a family birth that appeared to be coincident to a family relocation and absence during a crisis; it appeared to be an out-of wedlock birth. I checked in 2018 all of the F-a-G’s for siblings, and each identified the child as half-brother. In 2022, I was writing up that aspect of the history, and every one of the sibling F-a-G’s had been updated to reflect that he was a full sibling. I tried contacting the owner’s of the F-a-G entries to no avail — all denied having made the changes. In never print hard copies, but fortuitively I did in this case. Other facts also supported the conclusion that this was, in fact, a half-sibling, and that is the history I wrote. It matters little as the child died in his teens without heirs. Beware those who rewrite history!

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