Posted by Ancestry Team on March 28, 2016 in Research

Birth records are wonderful, but they don’t always give us the complete picture of the family. There could be children listed without first names (which can make it harder to find them in a search). There’s also the sad reality that some infants who were stillborn or who died shortly after birth weren’t recorded in the births.

So how do we look for people when we don’t know their names, or when they are missing from the birth records? One strategy is to use death records.

Why Use Death Records to Fill in the Gaps

Death records give us another opportunity to take a look for someone. When the records list the parents’ names, it opens up a new way to search for a person even if we don’t know that person’s name. This strategy also works well for finding those daughters who we think got married, but we don’t know to whom.

I went into the Kentucky, Death Records, 1852-1963 collection on Ancestry. This collection includes the names of the parents. Since that information is indexed, I did a search without filling in the name of the deceased. Instead, I searched just by the names of the parents, George and Caroline Martin.

search without a name

I got three results – two married females and a male (Sherd) whose surname was indexed as “Hartin.” (On his death certificate, the name was typed and the top corner of the M is missing.) All three death certificates list the parents as George Martin and Caroline Frazier.


Searching with just the parents’ names can also reveal children who were born and died between census years. Searching in the Kentucky death records for father Gilbert Abner and mother Ada revealed two children: McKinley, who was born in 1915 and died 26 October 1918, along with Minnie, who was born in 1913 and died a few days after McKinley.

Tips for Searching by Parents’ Names

When you’re in a collection of death records and you’re searching by parents’ names, you should try a variety of searches. The parents’ names could be recorded any number of ways, especially the mother’s name. Her surname might be recorded as her maiden name, her married name, or left blank. This is why my first search is with father’s full name and just the mother’s first name.

Because of all of the variations of how the parents’ names might be recorded, try different searches using:

  • Father’s full name and just the mother’s first name
  • Father’s full name and just the mother’s maiden name (first name blank)
  • Just the father’s surname and the mother’s maiden name

Of course, there will be instances where the person giving the information was completely wrong about the parents’ names. However, this strategy of searching just with their names can help you discover children who were previously unknown as well, and possibly find the deaths of those married daughters.


  1. Monika

    I have done this for years and also use the obituaries for the same reason. They will mention the married names for daughters (and unless you know whom they married you can’t get farther), they mention surviving parents and other family members which helps you branch out in your tree.

  2. Kim

    Exactly what I did and found two additional children for my great great grandparents that even the other genealogist in my family knew about! Expanding my tree and helping with some key DNA matches.

  3. Andrea

    Also, try this terrific trick with step-parent names. I have seen many instances where a step-parent is listed instead of the birth parent since informants may not know about birth parents if they’ve only known the step-parent.

  4. debbi

    Thanks for explaining this search variation in searching for unknown family. Sometimes big gaps in sibling census birthdates is a clue there could be a child who didn’t survive and not recorded in a census.

  5. Thanks for your suggestions. I try to get birth certificates and death certificates and obituaries. I am new enough that I don’t follow a pattern (as in “do this…then that”). I have a Gedcom Tree that I have lost my hard copy to (my computer crashed, etc). I know it is “out there” because I sent it to Family Tree Maker in possibly 2000. Thanks.

  6. Wilma Williams

    My third great grandfather was born in Nether Providence, PA. I have been doing Genealogy for 50 years and it is like a stone wall trying to find his parents. I think that his parents came with the Quakers . Possibly as indentured. His name is Bowman Webb b. 1762. I do know that their names could not be mentioned until their debt was paid.

  7. Lois

    The year 1918 is also significant since it is the year of the “Spanish Flu”. My mother’s sister died that year. That information might also be on the death certificate as cause of death.

  8. Using a parent search is one of my favorite search strategies. It works really well on FamilySearch. A parent search on ancestry requires more tweaks to search terms and filters. Great strategy on both websites!

  9. Even better: get the actual death certificate. The reporter may be someone you don’t know about. I got the death certificate for my grandmother’s first husband (he was using an alias when he died, so there was that hurdle). The informant was identified as his son, and gave an address. So I now knew that he had another son by another woman after he left my grandmother. But get this: That son was still alive and living at the address shown on that 1986 death certificate! He’s 93. I tracked him down and we had some great phone conversations, and he sent me some photos and documents that helped to fill out what happened between his father and my grandmother.

  10. Ryan

    My grandma had a sister listed for my 2nd great grandpa, but could not find anything of her as I couldn’t find her in the 1880 census and of course the 1890 as it no longer exists, but I finally found the sister!

  11. I think this is wonderful advice and will help many people. I have done something similar with the California Death Index. It’s been very rewarding. The mother’s maiden name being listed is awesome! I’m going to share the link to this in an online Genealogy class I’m currently taking through Future Learn. 🙂

  12. KMN

    Wow! Never gave that a thought … maybe there is still hope in finding the my elusive ancestors and cousins in the Swedish parish records. Three years of searching with various combinations of commonly known names, patronymic and non-patronymic surnames and known parish areas has been futile. I can’t wait to try this out … it appears that I may have added a brick to my own search by including the person of interest … talk about thinking outside the box! Thanks for this advice.

  13. How would we find my husbands mother all we know is that her name at the time was Kathy Brown she had my husband in Winnipeg Canada. She was in the service. And my husband dads name is Charles Otha Brown he was in the army.

  14. daniella

    I tried everything to find my father. The issue is my mother being mentally ill; she doesn’t remember exact information. I know basics but no matter where or how I search I end up empty handed. I do not know what to do

  15. Jonathan Keller

    Interesting analysis ! I learned a lot from the information . Does someone know if I could grab a fillable HHS PHS-T-003 example to fill in ?

  16. Paul Brittingham

    Hi Jonathan . my partner acquired a blank HHS PHS-T-003 version with this link “”

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