10 August 2018

6 Ways to Add Another Generation to Your Family Tree

When you started building your family tree, you may have known only your 4 grandparents' names. What fun it is each time you discover a relative's parents' names. You've added another generation to your tree!

Here are 6 places to look for the names of that previous generation. Some may surprise you.

1. Census Sheets

Look closely at each member of your relative's household in each census. You may find the Head of Household's mother, father, mother-in-law, or father-in-law living with the family. The best find is the male head of household's father-in-law. Now you've got the wife's maiden name!

2. Draft Registration Cards

If your male relative was single and the right age, his draft registered card may name his father or mother as his nearest relative. In this example, Tony Jr. is not his real name—it's Anton Jr. But this card is evidence that he is, in fact, named after his father.

The draft registration card for a single man may give you his mother or father's name.
The draft registration card for a single man may give you his mother or father's name.

I'd heard stories about "Uncle Anton" from my mother-in-law. When I found this card, I realized his father's name was Anton, too.

3. Ship Manifests

If your ancestor emigrated during a particular span of years, you're lucky. Their ship manifest may include a column labelled, "The name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came."

Your relative may give the name of their spouse. But an unmarried traveler may name their father or mother.

Your immigrant ancestor's ship manifest can tell you their hometown - and their parent's name.
Your immigrant ancestor's ship manifest can tell you their hometown—and their parent's name.

This is my grandfather Adamo naming his father Giovanni as the relative he's leaving in his town of Baselice.

4. Social Security Applications and Claims Index

A while ago I found a collection on Ancestry.com called "U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1935-2007".

If your relative worked in the United States after the 1935 founding of the Social Security Administration, they should have Social Security records. Hopefully you're already familiar with the SSDI—the Social Security Death Index. That can give you dates and places of birth and death.

But the Applications and Claims Index can give you much more! With some luck, you can learn the decedent's father's name and their mother's maiden name.

Plus, if you're looking up a female relative by her birth date, you can learn her married name.

5. Passport Applications

If your relative was a U.S. citizen going to another country at a certain time, they needed a passport. These applications can be a treasure trove. And you even get a photo.

Here's some of what you might learn about your relative:
  • birth date and place
  • address
  • occupation
  • father's name, birth date or age, birthplace and address
  • wife's name
If the applicant is a married woman, you'll get details about her husband rather than her father.

A passport application provides lots of names, dates and places you need.
A passport application provides lots of names, dates and places you need.

This example is from a relative named Walter Smith. It provides birth dates and countries for Walter, his wife Elizabeth, and his father George. It also says when he sailed from Liverpool to the U.S., and on which ship. The next page has photos of Walter and Elizabeth.

That's some valuable info when you're researching a guy named Smith!

6. Vital Records

Of course all genealogy fans want to find their ancestor's birth, marriage and death records. Keep in mind that:
  • The parents' names on a birth record should be pretty reliable. But either parent may be using a nickname rather than their true, full name.
  • All information on a death record is obviously supplied by someone other than the person who died. What if the decedent is an 85-year-old who was born in another country? Will their child, who's supplying the information, know the correct spelling of their grandparents' names? What if they never even met those grandparents?
  • If the couple getting married is pretty young, you can have more confidence in how they list their parents' names. (The "nickname" rule still applies.) But if the couple is older—2 widows getting remarried—the information is more likely to have an error.
  • If your couple got married in the same little town where they were born and raised, the clerk writing the names is more likely to get them right.

The lesson to take away is this: Don't give up on that previous generation if you can't get your relative's vital records. You have 5 other types of records to find, each of which can help you fortify your family tree.


  1. Passports are an interesting and underutilized source. I have seen some that pre-date photography and the written physical descriptions are fascinating to read.

    1. That sounds fascinating. I haven't found any relative of mine who left their country before 1890!

  2. Great tips and caveats presented in an easily digested format!

  3. Thanks, Liz. I work on websites for a living, so I believe in making things easy to follow visually.

  4. For US research you hit all the most important bases. I find chancery records to be a very good place to find parents names especially for the earlier years when vital records were non-existent.

    1. I've never heard of chancery records, Cathy. A quick search is showing them in Virginia, Mississippi and Tennessee. Are they more widespread than that?

  5. You've organized this well. A painless introduction to many basic record types. I enjoyed your writing style. Maryland has chancery records and they are an invaluable resource. Not every state has Chancery courts but they may have had the equivalent. Orphans court records are also good for parents names.

    1. Thank you, Eileen, for your compliments and the information on Maryland.

  6. A great reminder to check all of these... I also add - parish newsletters, often a font of information, membership lists of anything you can find in the area your ancestors lived, and public notices in newspapers, legal as well as BDMs... just a few of available resources.

  7. Great post and helpful comments from all!

  8. This is an interesting group of records, especially because some are only available in the last several decades (SS, passport applications, and draft registrations) and the others can go back a century, sometimes more. If only all of them were available back to the 1800s!

    1. I hope the Catholic Church will start releasing records from Italy and elsewhere. Then I can go back to the 1500s for sure.

  9. Great list - for Canadians, I would add Personnel Service Records from World War I. Library and Archives Canada just finished digitizing the entire collection for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Those records contain a wealth of information - even better, the .pdf downloads are free!!


    Plus, for those with English and Welsh ancestors, the General Register Office Birth Index contains (where available) the Mother's Maiden Name in the Search results from 1837 on (when Civil BMD Registration began). You do have to sign up for a free account (no credit card information asked for until you want to buy a record):


    I'm loving your blog!! It's a regular stop for me on my blog circuit :)


    1. Thanks, Teresa! As you can see, my focus and experience are on U.S. and Italian records. I venture out into other areas a bit, but they're not my strong point.