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Overheard on the Message Boards: How Do I Find Siblings to My Great-Grandparents?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

October 10, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I have information for most of my great-grandparents including names, dates of birth, dates of death, etc. What is the best way to go about finding the siblings to those relatives? For example, my great-grandfather Joseph Connors had a brother Timothy Connors. I have his year of birth and there are two on the Social Security Death Index that could be him but I'm not positive. -- Erin

A: Finding siblings of your ancestor is part of a research process known as cluster genealogy. Cluster genealogy forces you to look beyond your own ancestor into other family members as well as other families that have some connection to your ancestor, either through marriage or legal documents, such as land records or witnesses, say to a will.

Of course, we often know who our ancestor is because we have the birth and death certificate for another generation. For instance, you may have the death certificate for your grandfather, which supplied you with some preliminary information about your great-grandparents. The lure is to head right back to researching the great-grandparents, seeing if you can find their parents. Instead, it is a good idea to see what you can find out about your grandfather and what other records you can find on him that may allude to siblings.

Finding siblings means branching out in the records.

What Types of Records?

There are some records that are better than others when it comes to trying to establish the identities your ancestor's siblings. Census records are often one of the first records that we use, if our ancestor was born between about 1835 and 1930. I suggest 1835 because it is likely that your ancestor was still living at home in 1850. The 1850 census was the first to list all those living in the household by name, though it would not be until 1880 that the actual relationship of each person to the head of the household would be noted. So, there is some assumption on your part with the households found in the 1850 to 1870. The upper limit of 1930 is the result of the 72-year privacy act that keeps the census records sealed and unavailable until 72 years after the taking of that census.

Another resource that often supplies you with the names of siblings is the obituary of your ancestor. Provided that some of the siblings have outlived your ancestor, they are often mentioned, sometimes with their residence, in the obituary. Obituaries were more detailed in years past than we often see today. Today's newspapers have more death notices than actual obituaries. You will find that genealogical societies often transcribe or abstract obituaries for the newspapers of their area. These are then published and sold through the society. You may also find that they are available through the Family History Library and have often been microfilmed. If they have not been microfilmed you would either need to try to purchase the publication or hire a professional genealogists in Salt Lake City to access the book in question at the library. Books cannot be borrowed to your local Family History Center.

Probate records are another resource that will often list siblings. This is the one record in which you are concentrating on the parents of your ancestor. There is always an exception to the rule, and this is the exception to exhausting the records on your ancestor before moving on. However, let me point out that you should also get the probate records on your ancestor as he or she may have listed the children of a deceased sibling or mentioned a sibling as well. Again these records are often found on microfilm through the Family History Library. If they are not available there, then you will need to contact the county courthouse directly. You will find information about the courthouses in Elizabeth Petty Bentley's Genealogist's Address Book, along with some information about the holdings of the courthouse and sometimes some prices for requesting records.

Researching the Siblings

If you have found a birth certificate on your ancestor, see if there is any indication as to the number of his or her birth. This is a good way to know if there are older siblings to be looking for, some that may not show up in the census with your ancestor given their age at the time of the birth of your ancestor. For instance, if your ancestor was the 8th child and he was born in 1879, it is likely that some of his older siblings will not show up with him in the 1880 census. However, after identifying the family in the 1880, you may be able to track back through the census for 1870 and 1860 and locate the additional children, having an assurance based on the names and ages of those living in 1880 that you have found the correct family.

Once you have the names of the siblings though, you must research them just as you would research your own ancestor. You must learn when and who they married. You must find out if they remained living in the area or if they moved away. Did they go into military service? If so, what records can you find there. Sometimes pension records will help you determine where a male sibling was living when he applied for his pension. For instance, I have tracked one ancestor from Illinois to Iowa then to Kansas, back to Iowa, and then all the way west to Washington state. Without his pension records I would not have known he died in Washington.

You must compile the life of each sibling. In your case it would help you to identify which of the entries in the SSDI is the correct one. While there may not be a birth certificate for Timothy Connors, there may be a death certificate for him or you may learn his date of birth from his marriage record.

Build a Timeline for the Family

As you are researching the family, looking for the siblings, I find it is sometimes helpful to build a timeline of the family. While many people build a timeline of an individual's life, I find that the timeline of the family helps me to notice patterns in the migration of the family or in the naming of the children. In some groups the names may be clues to past generations, at least they are names you should be on the look out for as you progress in your research.

When I talk about a timeline of the family, in this case I am almost suggesting a timeline of three generations. You know Joseph's parents and no doubt some information on them. Begin with their birth. Then identify all the years that you have records for Joseph's parents. Did Joseph's father purchase land? This helps you to establish where he was living at the time. List each census year and indicate whom you have found in each year. As the children leave home have you located them separately in their own homes? Continue this research for the siblings, and in some instances the children of the siblings. Taking it to this extreme is often only necessary when you have a particularly difficult brick wall that you are trying to push past.

Collect a Surname

There are times when your may find that it is necessary to go into a county and get information on all the individuals who share the same surname as your ancestor. I use this approach only when I am having difficulty connecting my ancestor to a given family. By researching everyone in the county with the same surname, I often find I can put them together into family units. Such an approach is more than just adding names to a database. You must methodically go through the records of the given county, all the records you can find, looking for and recording the information on each individual of the surname in question. As you are going through the records you will begin to see patterns, recognize relationships, and begin to put the families together into familial units.

This will take more than a day and only part of the work can be done online. There are so many records and resources that are not available online and require us to either visit repositories in person or hire a professional researcher.

In Conclusion

There are many steps involved in first identifying the siblings and then in tracking their lives. While many choose to ignore these individuals, concentrating solely on their direct lineage, the siblings may hold clues to the generations beyond. And really, when we are researching a family, we should research everyone in the family, not narrow our research so much that we exclude those who helped influence the man or woman our ancestor became.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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