Big changes have come to — all content is now read-only, and member subscriptions and the Shop have been discontinued.
Learn more
New? Start Here
Genealogy How-To
 Getting Started
 Getting Organized
 Developing Your Research Skills
 Sharing Your Family's Story
 Reference Guide
 Biography Assistant
Free Genealogy Classes
 Beginning Genealogy
 Internet Genealogy
 Tracing Immigrant Origins

Family Finder
First Name:

Impossible and Improbable

by Donna Przecha
Print this article
Printer-friendly version
What to Do When Family History Isn't a Straight Line
Every genealogist eventually runs up against some kind of "brick wall" in his or her research. Donna Przecha discusses some common dead ends and shows you how to work around them.

Genealogy thrives as a rewarding hobby because most people in the past lived orderly lives. We expect them to be born, marry, have children and die, and that there will be someone to record most of these events somewhere. Usually this is exactly what happens. All we have to do is find out where these events were recorded. However, occasionally we come across events that just do not fit into the orderly scheme of things. Sometimes they seem to be highly improbable or completely impossible.

Disowned Children

In past times marrying outside the family's religion, race, culture or social class was considered by some to be taboo. If children violated this rule, some families would disown them and even declare them dead. In one case the parents not only declared the child dead but went so far as to erect a tombstone with her name and her marriage date as the death date. People who were mentally ill or physically deformed might be sent off to an asylum or hospital and the family would act as if they were dead. They might be recorded in the family Bible as having died, so when you find the individual in a census you will be thoroughly confused! A daughter might also be disowned if she became pregnant and was not married or a son cut out of the family if he ended up in prison. Obituaries were generally provided by the families, and facts and children who did not suit the image the family wished to project could be omitted. If a child was not mentioned in the obituary in the local hometown paper, it didn't mean the child didn't exist or was deceased.

Finding disowned children can be very difficult because they often moved a long way from their original home to a completely different environment. Someone from Connecticut might move to Idaho or Texas for no apparent reason. With more national indexes becoming available, it is easier to locate these people. Since most census indexes are still on a state-by-state basis, you almost have to check each state as there is no predicting where they might have gone.

The names of disowned children might turn up in a will or probate. In a will the parent might want to mention the child just to be sure he or she is cut out of the inheritance. If there was no will, all living children would need to be named in legal documents relating to an inheritance.


Even in this day of instant communication with cell phones, pagers and the Internet, you can still pick up the paper and read about a man who was married to different women and had two different families, each of which was unknown to the other. (Why a man would want the responsibilities of two families and keeping them secret is beyond me!) In the past it was so much easier to acquire two wives, although it was more often serial rather than concurrent. If a man from Virginia went to California to look for gold, he might decide after a couple of fruitless years that he didn't want to go home and face the ridicule of his family and neighbors. He might decide to just settle down in California, perhaps open a store or take up farming and marry a girl he met there. Since he may have stopped writing to his family in Virginia months ago, he would hardly feel it was necessary to go to all the trouble and agony of trying to get a divorce. He might even send back an announcement of his death just to close that chapter of his life.

When a husband disappears, the wife usually goes through the legal process to have him declared dead after a certain period of time. You might encounter the family with the husband in one census and in the next find the wife listed as a widow. This would lead you to believe he died in the meantime and you would look for cemetery records, obituaries, wills and death records. If he simply disappeared, you will not find any of these and may need to explore court records for a legal document declaring him dead. Of course, he may not really be dead at all.

Name Changes

Many men, especially new immigrants, found it too overwhelming to try to support a family and just walked off and were never heard from again. They might even change their names, settle down in a new area and get married again. This is very difficult to track and document, but one place where this could come out is in military pension records. If a man was in the Civil War, his first wife would know he was entitled to a pension and would apply for one when it became obvious he was never coming back, and could be presumed dead. If he remarried under another name, he might feel enough loyalty to his second wife to disclose his military service and the name under which he enlisted. Once he died and the second wife applied for her pension, both applications would end up with the same service record.

If you suspect a possible name change, be sure to consult as many legal or official documents as possible, such as pension papers, wills, naturalization papers or land deeds. Even if a man changed names he might think he had to include his "also known as" (AKA) name to be sure the transaction was valid, fearing the original name might come out at some point and nullify the action.

A woman could create genealogical confusion by not changing her name. If a woman had a child out of wedlock, she might move to another town, keep her maiden name but call herself Mrs., claiming she was a widow. Even if people knew she had never married, a mother would be called Mrs. as a courtesy because it would be embarrassing to all concerned to suggest that an unmarried woman had a child.

In African-American research, many people assume that a freed slave would take the family name of the person who had owned him before emancipation. In fact, the freed slaves could take any name they liked and many experimented with several names before settling on one. Siblings might choose different surnames so it is not obvious to a researcher that they are related. A parent might have lived on a different plantation and select a different name from the child. Many chose names of famous people or people they admired, so the surname may or may not be significant for the researcher.

Duplicate Names

Sometimes a researcher looking through baptism records will find a couple who gave the same name to two different children. A look at the burials usually reveals that the first child with that name died before the second one was born. In some cases no such death is found. In fact, both children seem to live, grow up and produce their own records. This can cause the researcher a bit of confusion and reexamination of the records. For some reason — perhaps a lack of imagination? — parents will give children almost identical names. In one family there was a John and a Jonathan, and both lived to adulthood. Mary and Maria are also possibilities.

Sometimes, especially in German names, the first name would be the same for all children of the same sex, but the second name would be different. A family might consist of Johann Georg, Johann Wilhelm, Johann Josef, Anna Barbara, Anna Maria and Anna Theresa. Needless to say, the children usually went by their middle names and the children might be known as Georg, Johann, Josef, Barbara, Anna and Theresa. In later records, they might reverse the name since the middle name was the one usually used. This means you almost have to follow the lives of all the brothers to be sure who was really Johann. Just to confuse matters, Georg and Josef might use their official first name, Johann, on a record.

Informal Adoptions

Very often in the past, adoptions were very informally arranged. A woman might have a child that she really couldn't care for, because of health or financial reasons, while her sister might have wanted a child but was unable to have one. It might be agreed between the two families that the child would be given to the other to raise. No papers were signed or legal documents filed. Similarly, a foundling might be taken in by a family and simply raised as their own.

Wrong Sex

We have all encountered a person being classified as a male in one census and a female in another. This frequently happens with unusual names, or names that can be either sex, and usually it is just an error on the part of the census taker. However, there have been cases where children have been raised as if they were the opposite sex. Boys were dressed like girls when they were small and a mother who wanted a girl and was unable to have any more children might well continue that deception until the child revolted. Sex change operations were not possible 100 years ago but people could live as if they were the opposite sex. A woman might be especially tempted to masquerade as a man if she wished to be a soldier or a cowboy or follow some equally masculine occupation. Very recently a well-known band leader died and it was found that he, even though he was married, was actually a woman and no one knew.

Race Change

While following a family back through the census you might find a person who had always been classified as white, listed as mulatto, meaning a mixture of white and African ancestry. While we know the census taker often made mistakes, this might mean there is African-American ancestry in that line. Appearance played a big part in racial designation and when possible, many people of mixed ancestry would "pass" for white when they could. The children of Sally Hemings are a good example. (Whether or not you believe Thomas Jefferson was the father, it is generally accepted that the father of the Hemings children was white.)

Sally herself was 1/4 black, as her father and maternal grandfather were both white. Her children were only 1/8 black. They all drifted off, with or without permission, and settled elsewhere. Eston at first settled in Ohio and in 1852 moved to Wisconsin where he changed his name from Hemings to Jefferson and his race to white. Eston's descendants did not even know of their black ancestry. Beverly (a son) and Harriet apparently disappeared into white society. Thomas became a minister in the African Methodist church and Madison stayed in the black community.

Many people, especially in the south, have both white and black ancestry. Given the conditions and disadvantages under which blacks, even free ones, had to live, it made sense to be classified as white if at all possible. It made their lives and the lives of their families much easier.

Facing the Impossible

I would not encourage anyone to look for any of these extreme situations in his or her own family research, but if the impossible or the improbable appears, keep an open mind. If you come across one of these situations, this line may be truncated. Even if you do manage to work around it, it will take much research and documentation to gather enough evidence to prove what really happened. However, if you do manage to piece the whole story together, it will probably be the highlight of your family history!

Learn More
• Discuss this topic with other researchers
•Find new leads on your ancestors. Get a FREE Trial Membership.
• Have questions about researching your family history? Browse through our expert tips archives for answers.
How-To Article: Missing Fathers
How-To Article: Discrepency Charts — Organizing the Inconclusive
Expert tips: Talking to Your Family About Your History

Home | Help | About Us | Terms of Service | PRIVACY
© 2011