How to Find Genealogy Information When a Record Doesn’t Exist

The other day, I was helping someone with his genealogy research in Indiana. He had what seemed to be a simple question. He was trying to find a birth record of his ancestor who was born there around 1840. Just one problem: Indiana didn’t keep civil birth records back in 1840. So how do you find genealogy information when the record doesn’t even exist?

Stop Focusing on the Record

Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders.
Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders.

Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders. We get hyper-focused on finding that birth, marriage, or death record. We do need to make diligent searches and consider various places where the record might be.

For example: the state of Virginia claimed to not have my grandmother’s birth certificate. Imagine my surprise when my dad gave me a copy along with some of Grandma’s papers. (“Oh, you’ve needed that?”) I should have looked through her papers sooner.

(If you’re certain that a death record should exist, but you’re not finding it, consider some of the strategies I’ve outlined here.)

But what do we do when the record truly doesn’t exist? What do we do about an 1840 birth in Indiana, when the state didn’t start keeping birth records until 1882?

That’s when we need to take off the blinders. Stop focusing on that record and look around at other resources that are available.

Start Looking for the Information

Think about why you want that record you’re looking for. There are two main reasons to look for your ancestor’s birth record:

  • You want to document his or her date and place of birth
  • You want to identify his or her parents

Ask yourself what other records might contain the information you’re looking for. The person I was helping said that he wanted to identify the parents. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Baptism record
  • Family Bible
  • Probate (looking at the people he was living with in 1850)
  • Civil War pension (he was a prime age to have served)
  • County histories published during his lifetime
  • Death record
  • Obituary

Of course, the accuracy of some of those records are are going to be dependent on the knowledge of the informant. (Did the informant on the death certificate really know the names of the parents or was that just his best guess?)

Finding the Information: Let Your Goal Be Your Guide

Instead of being disappointed or frustrated when we can’t find a specific record, let your goal be your guide. Think about what it is you want to use that record for and then consider what other types of records would have that same information.

What “other” records have you used when the record you originally wanted didn’t exist?

How to find genealogy information when a record doesn't exist

Posted: July 23, 2015.

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  • For those in Indiana, if your ancestor did serve in the Civil War, be sure to check the Veterans Enrollment Lists of 1886, 1890, and 1894. They’re located at the Indiana State Archive and sometimes list the name of the father of the soldier or his widow. The 1886 had the name of my 4th great grandfather William Asbury Porter’s father and the 1890 had the name of my 4th great grandfather Samuel Michael’s father, neither of which I knew before checking these records. Definitely a must for those with Civil War ancestors in Indiana! Also, sometimes your ancestor’s Civil War muster roll card listed a birth location, so those can be quite helpful and are located at the Indiana State Archive as well.

    • Excellent advice, Tyler! Those Enrollment Lists are great, especially considering Indiana’s portion of the 1890 Union Veterans schedule was lost. I believe the Indiana Genealogical Society has some of the lists available for sale.

      • They do! And the Indiana State Library has a card catalog that lists those on the 1886 list and their location and several of the lists have been transcribed and are in book-form in the library holdings.

  • How do I find my gg grandfather birth parents, they both died when he was a child, around 1820 in Beaufort district sc, they had a ciurt house fire around that time

    • Burned counties are always a challenge. You’ll want to look for any records that you can — land, probate, court, etc. — for whoever shares his surname and all of the people he associated with. Who did he live with or live near? Who witnessed his deeds when he was old enough to buy and sell land? Those people can hold the clues to unlocking the mystery. Also check about how many of the records were actually lost. For example, there was a courthouse fire in a county near me; most of the probate records were lost, but the land records survived.

  • Hi, looking for any suggestions on where to look for my greatgrandfather, George Kellner. His death cert. said he was born in Germany in1863. He married my g grandmother in 1893 in Lacrosse, WI after she was widowed. They had one son, Jacob in 1985 He left or was thrown out??within a few years. Shows in the 1895 Lacrosse, WI Census. He does not show up again until the 1940 census, living in an County home for the elderly. He died in 1942 and his body was given to the UW Madison school of medicine. So there is no grave. The marriage certificate list his parents as John Kellner and Magdalena Steger. So where was he between 1895 and 1940. I checked all the city directories for Janesville, and he is not in any of them, also not listed in Lacrosse after 1895. Did he ever remarry? have more children? How did he go all those years not being on any other census? I can’t find immigration for him. So I have no idea when he came to the US. if he came alone, or with other family members….. Any suggestions on where I can look would be appreciated. Mary

    • Mary Werner,
      I would attempt searching immigration records again perhaps starting with Hamburg records in the 1871-1872 timeframe as that was a huge year for German immigrants. It may point you to a place, or another person in regards to where they were heading. Also, perhaps they were traveling with others, including extended family, heading to the same location. Easier to find a group than individuals with common names.

      If Dad came first to get things set up, and Mom came later with the famil, I’ve seen in some cases where she may travel under her maiden name.

      German language passenger records were transcribed into English (at least for Hamburg), however in doing so important info was dropped. Ancestry allowed me to click on a link to view those records and I was able to finally find my Grandparents last city of residence, and the maiden name of my paternal GGrandmother.

      My German ancestors name was spelled GreWe on the boat in 1872, then GraVe, Greaves, Greave, and finally GreVe on following census records, & draft registration…with 2 diff spellings on the same form…be flexible.

      At age 9 my USA born grandfather traveled back to Germany alone for a period of time to meet and live with his grandparents, ..attend music school… then reentered the USA.

    • Mary Werner,
      Based on records below there appears to be a George Kellner who married a Kate Nirschel ( Knershel?) in Spring Valley, not far from Jainesville, WI, had a child and then relocated to Manatoba, Canada where he had 3 more daughters. The first daughter was born about the time you said he disappeared.

      He was born in Germany in 1863 and also appears to have crossed borders back into the USA via Vermont, and was naturalized in NEW YORK. Canadian records show immigration in 1911, but that could be from the USA, NOT GERMANY. ONE of the records even lists a sister in Germany by name and location. Could moving to Canada be the reason he disappeared off USA RECORDS.

      Hope this helps you?

      • I had a similar situation. Since like your ancestor mine was old enough to know her birth name when she was “adopted” she used her birth name instead of her “adopted” name on her marriage record!

  • Thank you for the advice. I have been concentrating on finding my 4th gt grandparents so much I would get frustrated and give it all up. I figured they died and children were given to different one.

  • How do you find parents when the first record is when the child is 9 and the story always was that he was adopted? The year of birth was 1850.

    • That can be a tough situation. The problem is that many “adoptions” in that time period were informal, with no official adoption paperwork as we know it today. I would still take a look at court records for the area, as well as probate records. You might also want to consider doing a DNA test, which could help you identify genetic cousins that could help pinpoint the child’s birth family.

    • I had a similar situation. Since, like your ancestor, mine was old enough to know her birth name when she was “adopted” she used her birth name instead of her “adopted” name on her marriage record!

  • I have been trying to find death information on my Grgrandmother. Annie/Anna (McCormick) Minkner. She died when my grand mother was 16, about 1923. However all of the information seems to be a guess. My sister entered information on her grave, death date different. She appears in the Census in 1910, in Indianapolis, Indiana, with hoh Fredrick Minkner and children. She also is found in the 1920 Census, Indianapolis, Indiana. She does not appear in the 1930 Census. There is no document info on a Obit, and it seems on all information about her death is repeating the information my sister listed about Anna’s death, but the dates do not match the information my grandma always said, that her mother died when she was 16. I so would like to have some documentation on her actual death date. I have been to the Historical Library in Indianapolis again I cannot find any information. I have searched online newspapers. I have search, I have been searching for a record on her death for over 20 years. Can you offer any suggestions? I thank you for any assistance.

    • Memories are a tricky thing, especially when it comes to saying how long ago something happened or what age you were. I’d suggest focusing on records and less on trying to tie it into it had to be a in a certain year. Have you looked for her death record? Indiana was keeping them at the time. I noticed that she has a memorial on FindAGrave. It has a death date of 1920. I would suggest requesting a photo of her tombstone to see what it says. Since the family was living in Indianapolis, you could also go through the Indianapolis city directories and see what year Fred starts being listed without her. I found Fred in the 1930 census. Not only is Annie/Anna not with him, but he is listed as widowed, which would give more evidence to her death being between 1920 and 1930.

  • I have a rather different problem. I know the name of my great great grandma. Her Findagrave site says her parents died when she was 9 and she was raised by a woman in the town she was born in. It does not give her parents names or what happened to them. I have searched Find A Grave sites and come up with nothing? What direction. Should I take?

    • I’d contact the person who left that information on the FindAGrave memorial to see where they got that information.

  • My husband Grandmother died in childbirth with his sister. She was buried in PA but they have searched for years for her grave. I think it was close to the Johnstown area. The children were split up and placed with other Italian families. Is there anyway to locate a grave or cemetery in that area?

    • I’d look for her death record and obituary. Depending upon the time period, her death record might record where she was buried. Obituaries often include the cemetery. It might also mention where her funeral was held. If it was a church, she might be buried there or there might be church records with more details. Also, look for her other family members to see where they are buried.