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How Do I Find My Ancestor’s Parent?

Marriage day of Lawrence Royton Johnson (abt. 1870-11 April 1945) and Louise B. Marshall Johnson (1879-1957)

This is my husband's grandfather, Lawrence Royston Johnson (abt. 1870-11 April 1945), and grandmother, Louise B. Marshall Johnson (1879-1957). In 2016, we did not know their marriage date. Back then, we had to go to the Louisiana State Archives. There we found their marriage license:

We looked at it, and we found their parents! Lawrence's father was Lawrence Johnson, and his mother was Jemima Johnson. Louise's father was Joseph Marshall, and her mother was Josephine Marshall. We had driven from South Carolina, and this was not the only historical record we found. Stayed tuned for an upcoming blog post.

This is the ninth chapter of My Best Genealogy Tips: Quik Key to Research Ancestry:

Are you stuck in search of a few clues for locating the parents of your ancestor? The list below will help point you in the right direction. The records vary by locality and are stored in different places depending on the location. Search the Research Wiki for clues to records available. Search by the county or parish and state, and search by the topic. You can also learn about how to access records by containing these places where your ancestor lived:


•       library

•       archives

•       courthouse


Trace your ancestor on the census years when they would be living at home with their parents. You will need to know the maiden's name to identify a female ancestor. Be sure to compare other family members listed by your ancestor’s siblings to make sure certain names and birth order match.  

     The US Census is an extremely helpful tool for identifying ancestral family groups. One of the best ways to find resources to document our ancestors is by searching for each family member, especially, spouse, children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

      The US Census was taken every ten years between 1790 and 1950. The 1890 US Census was destroyed by fire in 1921. They are released every 72 years after they are taken.

      One of the best techniques to employ would be to search out the life of each person every ten years during census years. This way you may extract enough information to reach the most likely conclusion, and you can then compare your findings with other historical documents you may find. You will find a census checklist and other helpful extraction forms at the bottom of this post.

      Since we are covering several types of records now, we will share the most useful techniques for searching the census effectively, discuss how to use the census to find more records, and identify what we can learn from each census taken. We will also cover state census records and how you can access them.

      Most African Americans were not enumerated until the 1870 US Census, however, many free or emancipated African Americans do appear on the censuses prior to 1870. You should always start searching your family line in 1950 and move back in time. When you reach the 1870 US Census, and you do not see your family any further back, you will need to identify any enslavers. You will need to research the enslaver and the family forward, and then back in time, so you will need earlier census extraction forms.

     You will discover that each different census provides several types of information. The 1900 US Census gives the month and year the individual was born. Sometimes the information on the census is not correct. For example, If the family was not home when the census taker visited, the neighbors may have provided the information that you see. The best way to make sure you do not miss a family group for any of the census years is to use census extraction forms to document your findings.  I also recommend using the Census Checklist at Family Tree Magazine, where you can download many types of useful forms in .pdf format for no charge. 

     I have had remarkable success in locating extended family and documenting ancestors by researching every member of the family group on direct and collateral lines. It is also a good practice to take notice of the families living in the surrounding area, so I always check who has listed ten houses on either side. Verify your findings using other records below.     

     Social Security Application - If your ancestor lived long enough to apply for Social Security, the names of his or her parents may be listed on the original application.


     Death certificate - Many times death certificates include the names of an ancestor's parents. You will need to identify this information. If you cannot find a death certificate for your ancestor, search for one on a sibling.


     Obituary - A newspaper obituary can provide many clues about relatives. Sometimes the names of parents are given. Some give parent’s names. Sometimes you will have the names of living family members in obituaries. Those make the best chances for oral history interviews.


   Wills – You can find out more about an ancestor’s family if a will exists. Wills often mention the names of family members, especially children, and spouses. Learn more about wills here: Research Wiki: United States Probate Record.


   Marriage record – Some marriage records mention the names of the parents. You will need to study the content of records in each locality for the period of time you are researching:


•       birthdate of bride and groom

•       full names of parents

•       employer

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