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Overheard in GenForum: Unnamed Child
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.

December 21, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: What do you do when you realize that "Male" child is someone you are looking for? How can you find their name? In searching for siblings of my grandfather, I found "Male" with the same parents as my grandfather. How can I find more info on him? -- Clare

A: Unfortunately, unnamed children are not uncommon. We find them in the census records and in vital records. It is frustrating when you suspect that the child is either your direct ancestor or a sibling of that ancestor. After all, we strive to gather the records that support our assumptions or conclusions, and a birth record or census record that includes "Baby Boy" Johnson doesn't help.

Therefore, it becomes necessary to do one of two things. One is to find records that state the name of the child and through additional information on those records get the exact date of birth. The other is to build a case that when reviewed can only offer one conclusion.

Guess who? The unnamed child.

Using Census Records

When you discover an unnamed child in the census, one of the first steps is to search the next available census. Usually an unnamed child in the census is a newborn baby, generally under six months of age. By the time of the next census, the child would be either nine or ten years old and would certainly have a name.

While this is one way to make the case, the possibility of errors in the census and the recording of nicknames may cause more confusion. Also, while we do not like to think about death, in many families children died at a young age. It was not uncommon to lose a child during that early childhood. Between the illnesses and the elements, those who survived had to be hearty.

Other Records

One resource that people don't think to check for is a delayed or revised birth certificate. This point was brought home to me a few years ago when working on my maternal grandfather. Early in my research, when he was still alive, he had shared any and all papers he had, including his birth certificate. At the time he commented that on the fact that it was listed as a "revised" certificate. He said he didn't know why that was so.

Since I knew him personally, I did not pursue it. Some years later though, in an attempt to gather more information on his mother, I found myself searching line-by-line in the birth registers for the births of his siblings. Line-by-line I went until I came upon a child that I did not recognize. What stunned me though was the date of birth, as it was my grandfather's. His name had been changed, which explained the revised birth certificate.

If your ancestor was born at a time when birth certificates were not yet recorded, you will definitely want to turn your attention to delayed birth certificates. This may require a great deal of patience as you search these certificates. If you are lucky, there may be an index. By comparing the surname and date of birth in the index, if it provides the date, you can narrow down your search. If it does not include the date of birth, then it will be necessary to search through each male child of the correct surname.

In Conclusion

In addition to census records and birth records, you may need to widen your net. A search of marriage applications may supply you with the clue. Probate records for the father likewise may be of use. These records are particularly useful in the 1880-1900 gap in the census records when checking the next census is not an option and very often birth records have not yet begun.

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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