There are certain genealogical problems that are more prevalent in the modern era than they were in the past. Human nature being what it is, all of these things existed to some degree in the past and can be issues for genealogists researching past generations. These things are more common in modern times, though, and the genealogist who is tracing their modern family and putting together a list of current descendants of a particular ancestor can find themselves confronted with these issues more often than the genealogist of the past. Genealogists working on modern family trees, as well as future genealogists, will have to deal with and overcome these issues.
These are some of the most common “modern” genealogical problems, and how you can solve them.
This can be an issue in finding the name of the father, especially if the mother gives the child her maiden name. Birth records will have to be searched, which are not always available to the general public in many states. Some states make you wait as much as one hundred years after the birth before you can get a birth certificate if you are not the parent of the child or the child listed on the certificate. If you know your relatives well, and the unwed mother is someone you can talk to, you can always ask about the father if you feel she will answer you.
If you are able to get the birth certificate the father’s name may be on there, but it also may not. If a woman doesn’t want to name the father, she can leave the father’s name blank on the birth certificate. You also need to take into consideration the fact that she might not know who the father is, either due to multiple partners or rape. If the father’s name is on the birth certificate, then you have a name and family line to search, which makes it much easier for you.
If the mother gave the child the last name of the father, but you have no birth certificate, and she hasn’t or won’t say who he is, you still have the last name to go on. Search families of that last name in the area, and in places the mother traveled around the time of conception. You might come up with a lead. If the mother and child agree, you can also DNA test the child, and see what paternal matches come up in the database of the testing company. Explore these matches, and you may find the father and relatives of the father that allow you to trace that side of the child’s family tree, or to just add the name of the father to your own tree.
There have always been what we would consider non-traditional burials. These would be things like cremation, burial at sea, burial in a cave, or leaving the body outside for animals to devour. These are all practices used by cultures in the past, and some cultures still use them. Cremation and burial at sea are still a couple of choices people in America, and other western nations have if they don’t want to do a traditional burial. There are also graves that are unmarked, which can be frustrating for genealogists. Sometimes, the family just couldn’t afford a headstone. Other times, they might have belonged to a religion that did not believe in them, such as Quakers, who have largely observed the practice of forgoing headstones since the denomination was founded in the mid-1600s.
You can use death certificates, funeral home records, and obituaries to piece together when your ancestors died and where and how they were “buried.” Sometimes, ashes are buried in cemeteries after a cremation, so don’t discount this possibility. There may even be a headstone. Be sure to check all possibilities.
If the burial was before the time when there were records kept such as death certificates, you can often find the location with an obituary in an old newspaper, or with records of the location of burials from a cemetery. You may find burials for ashes, and even headstones for people who were actually buried at sea. If there are no headstones or burials, you may find the disposition of the remains in obituaries. These are all sources you should be looking at in your research. Deaths, including non-traditional burials, are pretty well documented in public records, so you shouldn’t have too much of an issue in finding the information you desire.
Don’t let a mere divorce throw you off track in your genealogical research. The people involved in a divorce are still very searchable. While divorces were traditionally difficult to obtain in past centuries, they were still a thing and were sometimes granted. Adultery and abandonment were usually the reasons divorces were granted in times past, but extreme cruelty could also be grounds for one. In fact, the first divorce granted in the American colonies by the Puritans was to a woman whose second husband abused her and her child by her first marriage so badly, the Puritan religious authorities believed the husband was no longer fit to be one and granted the divorce in the 1680s. The woman went on to marry a third time and had a long, happy marriage with that one.
There is a good selection of records you can search for divorces and the people involved in them. Court records (when they are available to the general public) and newspaper records are often good sources, with all the salacious details of what brought the couple to the point of divorce. Newspapers back in more distant times used to print entire stories around why a couple got divorced, and where each spouse went afterward. If you know they couple divorced, but can’t find a record of it, you can still research each former spouse individually to discover where they went and whether they re-married and had other children. The records are there, and modern family tree software programs usually have fields to indicate a couple divorced, and to add new spouses if they re-married.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)