How to find the father of an illegitimate child

In most families, sooner or later you will encounter a child born to an unwed mother. Finding the fathers of these ‘illegitimate’ children can be difficult, but not necessarily impossible.

I’ve researched dozens of these cases, both in my own tree and for clients. In four cases, I have been able to prove who the father was. In two other cases, I have developed good theories which I hope to prove through DNA. In the majority of cases, I ended up with a list of possible fathers, but no clear candidates. With the growing popularity of DNA testing and advances in tools for exploring DNA matches, it may be possible to solve these cases in the future.

While working these cases, I developed some strategies that may help you with your own cases too. I will use anonymized examples from my own research to illustrate how you can find out who the father of the illegitimate child was.

10 strategies to find the father of an illegitimate child

Strategy 1: Examine records from around the birth

Many unmarried women tried to hide their pregnancies so a pregnancy may have gone unnoticed in the community until the child was born. At that point, there are several possible records that may have been created:

  • A birth record may reveal the father. Notes in the margin may show if a man later acknowledged the child as his (which does not mean he was the biological father but he may have been).
  • A baptismal record may name the father. In the Netherlands, we often don’t look for baptismal records after the introduction of the civil registration in 1811, but they can reveal important information since churches often took a firmer stance against children born out of wedlock than the civil authorities.
  • Church council minutes may record how the mother was censored and perhaps contain interviews with the midwife to see if the mother uttered the name of the father during labor. The church council tried to make the mothers confess the name of the father so he could be admonished too, or censored for adultery if that was the case.
Birth record with note in the margin

Birth record of a child who was subsequently legitimized when her mother married (note in the margin)

Even if one of these records states the name of the father, this does not prove his paternity as the mother could have been lying or may not have been certain about the identity of the biological father herself. Like all evidence, it must be analyzed for reliability and compared to other records.

In one case, I researched a woman who had eight illegitimate children. The informant on all the birth records was the same man. One of the children was born in another town. In that birth record, the man was not only listed as the informant, but also as the father. According to official instructions, clerks were not supposed to record the names of fathers of illegitimate children, but the clerk in the second town ignored that instruction and wrote it down anyway. Further research showed that they were living together the whole time so it is very likely that he was the father of the other children too.

Strategy 2: Find out where the mother was around the time of conception

If the child lived, the pregnancy was probably full-term or close to full-term. This means conception probably took place around nine months before the birth, but to be on the safe side I recommend using a slightly wider range of seven to ten months. Try to find out where the mother was living and working around the time of conception. Possible records to consult:

  • Population registers (after 1850) and census records
  • Church membership records, which show when the mother came to live in the town
  • Newspapers

Strategy 3: Research the men in the mother’s life

Try to find out who the men in the mother’s life were, especially around the time of conception. Who was she living with? Who was she working for? Who were her neighbors? In one case, I discovered in the population register that the man who later married the mother was already living with her before the child was born.

As sad is it is to say, do not automatically exclude family members as potential fathers. I once found a court case where a stepfather was found guilty of sexual assault of a minor, his 16-year-old stepdaughter. A year after he got out of jail, she had an illegitimate child while still living at home. The stepfather was the informant on the child’s birth certificate. This does not prove that he was the father but the circumstances make him a likely candidate. I recommend that any adult (or at least: teenage) man in the mother’s life be treated as a candidate to be the father, regardless of whether he was related to the mother or not.

Records that can reveal which men were in the mother’s life are:

For each of the men, try to find out where they were in the period seven to ten months before the birth of the baby to see if you can rule any of them out.

Strategy 4: Get to know the mother

To speculate about the situations in which the mother may have gotten pregnant, it is important to try and get to know her. What was she doing for a living? How rich were her parents? How old was she when she got pregnant? What were her circumstances? A teenage servant girl who worked on a farm would find herself in different situations than a 40-year-old widow of an innkeeper.

For one of my ancestors who had two children out of wedlock, I investigated if she might have been a prostitute. To maximize your chances of finding the father, it is important not to make any assumptions or judgments and keep an open mind to all possibilities.

Strategy 5: Analyze the baby’s name

An important clue that the mother may have left you could be the baby’s name. Sometimes, unmarried women named the baby after the father, perhaps in kind remembrance or maybe in an attempt to persuade him to take responsibility. Dutch children were usually named after family members, so if the child has a name that does not occur in the mother’s family, that can be a clue to the father’s identity.

For this strategy, it is important that you know all the people in the mother’s family: parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and any close step-relati0ns. If the child is named after one of the maternal grandparents, that explains the name of the child and it does not help to find the father. But if the mother chose a different name, it may well point to the father’s identity. This is particularly interesting if the name is unusual and there was a man in the mother’s life with that name.

Mother with baby and child

Mother shortly after giving birth. Unknown photographer, circa 1885. Credits: Rijksmuseum

Strategy 6: Understand the community

To understand how your female relative might have found herself pregnant, it is important to understand the community she lived in. A few questions you could ask are:

  • Were there many women who had illegitimate children?
  • What ages were most women who got pregnant out of wedlock?
  • Were there many couples who had their first child within nine months of the marriage? If so, premarital sex may have been common. In some regions and social groups, couples waited until the bride was pregnant to get married, to ensure that she was fertile. It is easy to see how a girl could be abandoned before the marriage.
  • Were there many migrants in the community? The ‘suspect pool’ in a bustling merchant town would look very different from that in a sleeping village in the middle of nowhere.
  • Was prostitution legal and common? During large parts of the history of the Netherlands, prostitution was legal (it is today). Pregnancy was an occupational hazard for these women.

Answering these questions can be difficult. Perhaps someone is doing a one-place-study in the town where she was living in. Genealogists who do one-place-studies often have a good understanding of local traditions. If not, local genealogical societies might be able to help.

Strategy 7: Find out what was going on

Sometimes local events influenced how people behaved, which could result in pregnancy. A good example is the wave of ‘liberation children’ left behind by allied soldiers in World War II.

In order to understand if local events played a role in the conception, find out what was going on in the town about seven to ten months before the birth. Things to look out for are:

  • Presence of soldiers, for example an invading army, liberating army, soldiers quartered in houses.
  • Presence of a carnival or traveling show.
  • Was there an annual market or fair? This brought in people from several surrounding villages and also would have come with festivities and drinking that may have lowered inhibitions. The mother may have brought a local boy to the fair with her so just because there was an annual fair does not mean that the father had to come from somewhere else.
  • Was it harvest time? Often, when the harvest was over, the workers celebrated. The father may have been a fellow farm hand.
  • Criminal behavior, like rapists, in the neighborhood.

Local newspapers are a great source of information for these types of events. Many Dutch newspapers can be found at Delpher.nl. Alternatively, annual reports to the government by the municipality or police reports can shed light on what was going on. Magazines or books by local historical societies can also be a great source of information.

Painting of a market with two drunk men

Two drunks at Amsterdam market. Peter Paul Joseph Noël, 1821. Credits: Rijksmuseum

Strategy 8: Follow the money

In rare cases, mothers sued the father for child support, for loss of virginity or for breach of promise. These cases can be found in court records.

I once found a 17th century case file before the Court of Gelderland where an unmarried mother sued the father of her child. She details how he seduced her in the garden of the minister for whom she was working as a servant. He did not deny this but brought in a witness who testified that he had also had carnal knowledge of her, casting doubt on her moral character and the paternity of the child. She denied this and produced evidence that the second witness was a first cousin to the father and thus not unbiased. Unfortunately, the verdict has not been preserved but I would say the preponderance of evidence was in her favor. While not all court cases are this informative, they can be helpful to create a list of candidates.

In another court case, a poor servant girl sued the rich farmer she was working for, but the rich farmer said she was involved with the hired hand instead. Without additional evidence it is hard to say who spoke the truth: it is understandable that the married farmer would like to shift blame if he was the father, but it is also possible that the mother chose a richer target to sue than a poor hand who could not provide for her or her child.

It is also worth investigating if the material wealth of the mother improved after the birth, indicating that perhaps she was paid off. I’ve heard several family stories where a poor servant girl is paid off by the rich farmer, who found her a husband to marry and gave them some land or a house. Circumstances that suddenly increase should set off alarm bells that perhaps the biological father may have been rich.

Strategy 9: Research from cradle to grave

If nothing else works, research the entire lives of the mother, child and any potential fathers that you have identified.

Did the potential father ever interact with the mother or the child at a later point? Sometimes fathers remained involved in the children’s lives even if they would or could not legally recognize them. Perhaps the candidate father witnessed records involving the child, or acted as godfather to his (grand)children. I have never seen a case in Dutch records where a father mentions an illegitimate child in his will, but that is easy to check too. Don’t dismiss their earlier lives either. The candidate father may have been named as the father of other illegitimate children, which gives you an idea about his character.

There could also have been an impediment that prevented the father from acknowledging the child at the time of the birth, for example if he was married and was unable to get a divorce. But if he later finds himself a widower, it is possible that he would then marry the mother. He would not be able to legitimize the child, as it was born when he was married, so the fact that he does not acknowledge the child does not say anything about him being the biological father. For any man that the mother marries, it is worthwhile to find out if he was in the picture around the time of conception.

Strategy 10: DNA testing

Anybody who wanted to prove the paternity of a child today would turn to DNA. But DNA can even help solve older cases. There are several options.

If you have a candidate for the father, you can test specific people to see if they match. There are two options:

  • Y-DNA testing. Y-DNA inherits from father to son so you can use this kind of test if the illegitimate child is male and has a strict male-line living descendant. You should then find a strict male-line living descendant of the potential father (or his brother or paternal cousin, as long as they share a ancestor in the strict-male line). If both men agree to test, you can compare their results. If the results match, this is good evidence that your theory is correct. If the results do not match, your theory may be flawed, or there may have been a non-paternal event somewhere down the lines in either of the two men that tested. Y-DNA testing will not help you to determine which of two brothers or paternal cousins is the father but it can help narrow the suspect pool.
  • Autosomal testing. Autosomes are the non-sex chromosomes that get recombined each generation and half of them gets transmitted to a child. After about four generations, there are no guarantees that two descendants will share DNA so this type of test is especially useful if the illegitimate child was just a couple of generations ago. To use autosomal DNA testing to prove the identity of the father, you need one living descendant of the illegitimate child and one living relative of the potential father, who is not also related to the mother. If they share autosomal DNA this is evidence that it is the correct father.
    In these cases, I always research the pedigrees of both test subjects and compare them carefully so I am sure that there aren’t any other shared ancestors that could have contributed to any shared DNA. I want to make sure that any DNA that they share must have come from the alleged father.
    With autosomal testing you want to test the oldest generations that you can, as 50% of the autosomal DNA is lost which each generation.

If you do not have a candidate for the father, you want to test descendants to see which people they match. All major DNA testing companies will give you a list of matches: other people who tested with that company and who share DNA with the descendant. If you do not have a candidate for the father, you cannot actively select the people you want to compare with, but you see which persons just happen to match and work from there.

  • Y-DNA testing. If the illegitimate child is male and you test a strict male descendant, his Y-DNA matches may show several people who share the same surname. This may be the surname of the father too, especially if this matches one of the known men in the mother’s life.
  • Autosomal DNA testing. You want to test the oldest generation of descendants of the illegitimate child (or the illegitimate child him/herself if still alive and willing to test). To eliminate any matches from the mom’s side, you also want to test the mother or relatives of the mother who are not also descendants of the father. Any people who match the mother’s relatives can be eliminated from the list of matches. For the remaining matches, look for clusters of people that match each other on the same segments: those segments may have come from the unknown father. Then compare trees and see if these people share common ancestors. Since you are depending on the willingness of strangers to share information with you, this can be a long and sometimes frustrating process. But the numbers of people getting tested are growing quickly so there is a great potential for matches out there.

For more information about using DNA testing for genealogical purposes, I refer to Roberta Estes’ DNA Explained blog.

Conclusion

Finding the father of an illegitimate child is one of the hardest genealogical puzzles to solve. Often, the identity of the father will remain unknown but in some cases, enough evidence can be found to create a theory or even prove it.

Rarely are these cases solved by applying just one strategy. Developing good candidates for the father is often the result of extensive research into the records of the mother, child and potential father and acquiring detailed knowledge of the community that they lived in. Combining these traditional research methods with DNA testing can help to prove a theory.

Do you have illegitimate children in your family tree? Have you ever been able to find out who the father was? I would love to hear your strategies so please share them in the comments.

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She has been doing genealogy for almost 25 years. Her expertise is helping people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.

Comments

  1. I was glad to see DNA as one of the possibilities. Thank you for the kind mention:)

    • But of course 🙂

      • Janet Wilson says:

        i need help

        • If you explain your problem, I might be able to give some advice.

          • wilhelmina bedford nee duiynstee says:

            my mother was born illegitimate 1926 in jersey ,channel islands .my grandmother gave birth previously to a daughter in 1924 in jersey.she died about 3 months old.both girls went to Westaway creche from birth.my grandmother left jersey after the birth of her second child ,she was placed under the care of jersey states. .

            • I would recommend doing an autosomal DNA test, as described in the article. If your mother is available for testing, she would be the ideal candidate, but you would also have 25% of your unknown grandfather’s DNA so you or your siblings could test as well. I would also recommend you check the 1921 and 1931 census to see who was living in the area at the time, so you can see if any of these names show up among your DNA matches.

  2. Thomas v.d. Klok says:

    The most simple strategy is comparing photos, although it will only help for people living end 19th and 20th century. I matched an illegitimate lined far cousin to our family this way, he got in contact because of vague rumors on descendence from our family. His father was illegitimate but the youth pictures of his father were strikingly similar to those of my full cousin. We descend 4 generations back in paternal line and the father of this man 2 from the same person, my great great grandfather born in 1870.
    Another case is 4 generations back, male, in my mother’s pedigree born illegimate in 1845. I came across the possible father in a genealogical article by incidence. The photo I saw was almost exactly identical! It was the village doctor, born in the same year as the mother in the same village, widowed one year before the birth, remarried another woman in the year of birth. There is no common ancestry between the two that could explain the common traits. Descending from this doctor would explain that I have the same profession! 🙂
    I’d like to investigate both cases molecular in our own lab, the first will be easy. But what Y markers could you recommend me to specifically order primers for? Thanks in advance. Sorry for the length of my comment.

    • Hi Thomas, thank you for mentioning photos, which can also be a great clue. I don’t have any photos of my family from before 1900 and all my illegitimate ancestors were born before that time, so that’s why it did not occur to me.
      I recommend you do a generic Y-test on 67 or 111 markers. You can also start with lower numbers of markers (which are cheaper) and upgrade the test if you have good matches on those lower levels. As far as I understand it, testing specific markers is only useful if you know what you’re looking for, and is always done after a more generic test.

  3. I believe that I have identified the father of my illegitimate 3rd-great-grandmother Amanda Russell. It was a complex process that is too long to explain in the comments, but you can read my blog post about it: http://so-many-ancestors.blogspot.com/2014/04/52-ancestors-15-amanda-russell.html Because the identification of a grandparent-grandson relationship was crucial to this process and I had to rule out descent from Amanda’s husband Joseph Tarkington’s side, you may also want to look at the post I wrote about him, which includes my theory about his parentage: http://so-many-ancestors.blogspot.com/2014/04/52-ancestors-13-joseph-tarkington.html

    Thank you for the informative post! 🙂

  4. victoria kelly says:

    i have resolved to never finding the identify of my grandfathers father…..my great grandmother may have told a few people but the information was not passed down..it was in the early 1880’s….all i know is that she hid my grandfather when ever the father came around in her sisters fruit cellar….the only other information i have is that my great grandmother was the belle of east york(a beauty contest), (now toronto ontario) sometime in the late 1870’s and the name keeler of koehler ?? spelling unknown may be involved…i wish i could find this information as i have always felt closer to this side of my family and i truly wanted to bring a happier ending to my family research for all my cousins so that we could go back even further. i wish everyone here luck to finding their ancestors.

  5. Pat Wilson says:

    Then what do you do when you discover that the father is John Davies in South Wales and that there are 10 in the same street in the nearest census?

  6. Alex Moes [Moeskoecker] says:

    Hi Yvette,

    First off, great site.

    I have a curious case where i am 99 percent certain the named father is not accurate.
    My ggggrandmother, Annigje Oosterhof, was born 19.01.1826.
    When registered her father is listed as Geert Roelofs Oosterhof, but the thing is Geert is actually the eldest brother of her mother Jantje Roelofs Oosterhof.

    Jantje marries a man named Jan Jans Schans just 3 months later. and most trees show Jan as Annigje’s father but when she marries in 1848 she signs her name as “A Oosterhof” and no father is listed!

    The curious bit is that one of the two men who stand as witnesses for Annigje’s birth registration is named “Jan Schans”?

    https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1-19240-87578-43?cc=2026974&wc=MQBH-Y3D:344244001,344780001

    Have you ever come across anything similar?
    I assume she is DRC but i have yet to find a baptism.
    Records from after her marriage (children’s births, her death, children’s marriages) always name her “Annigje Schans” or “Annigje Jans Schans”.

    • Hi Alex,
      I checked the birth record of Annigje and Geert Roelofs Oosterhof is the informant because the child was born in his house. Nowhere in the record does it say that he is the father. The law had specific instructions for who was allowed to report a birth: the father, someone who was present at the birth or the person who owned the house where the birth took place. It seems that Jantje went to her brother’s house to gave birth. The fact that Jan Schans witnessed the registration shows that he was already in their lives at that point.
      He did not acknowledge Annigje as his daughter or that would have been noted in the margin of her birth record.
      If he had been the father, it would have been logical for him to acknowledge the child as his when he married Jantje. Since he did not, he probably was not the biological father.

    • Rick Lanting says:

      Alex,
      Jan Jans Schans & Jantje Roelofs Oosterhof are my 4 x great grandparents thru their son Roelof Jans Schans. I am one of those who had the incorrect information in my tree. I’m not sure how I missed this but have since corrected it. Thank you.

  7. I recently discovered your blog, and it has been very helpful in knocking down some of the brick walls of my Dutch genealogy!

    I was wondering…do you know of any good historical resources that might explain more about the religious customs around marriage and premarital sex? Most of my ancestors came from Groningen (and a few from Friesland), and I’ve noticed that in the mid-1800’s the majority had their first child within a few months of their wedding. I’m assuming this must have been fairly normal in their community, but would like to know more. Any ideas for resources would be helpful, thank you!

    • I have the same question as Sara. As far as I know, most of my Fries and Groninger ancestors were religious people, so it surprises me that there were so many babies born out-of wedlock or within a few months of marriage. Were there social reasons such as lack of available housing or multiple marriage dates (church vs state wedding) or poverty or ????

    • Evelyne says:

      In the northern part of Holland it was the custom for young lovers to go kweesten or queesten which in practise meant the boy could climb in through the bedroom window of the girl at night and was supposed to sit on de blankets so they had a chance to get to know each other. Family and neighbours were aware and usually consented. As most farmers had a busy day schedule, the night was the only opportunity to get the know each other properly. This might have contributed to children born within a few month of getting married or even out of wedlock?

      Kind regards,
      Evelyne

      • Kweesten was a tradition in some specific parts of the Netherlands (the Wadden islands, some villages in Overijssel), but was not common in all the northern provinces. From what I know of the custom, it was understood that the couple would mary if the girl got pregnant. In those areas, you may see more “six-month-babies,” but I haven’t noticed higher rates of out-of-wedlock births. That would be an interesting study.

  8. In Australia the father of an illegitimate child is often named in one or more series of Court of Petty Sessions records; and many other kinds of records here are also potentially useful. I like the research *strategies* you’ve outlined, and when I update my mini-guide ‘Researching Illegitimate Children’ I will add a link to this post.

  9. Do you know if it was common practice for an illigitamate son to take his mother’s last name in New Netherlands in the early 1800’s? There is an ancestor to whom all Hawaiian Houghtailings are descended from, but that no one can find his parentage. He was born in New York, but all candidates for a legitimate biological father with the same last name come to a dead end. My hunch is he was born out of wedlock, but am not sure if he would have taken his mother’s last name or if his mother would have given him the father’s last name. It would also explain why he left his ancestral home (New York) to seek his fortune, as he may have been less likely to inherit land etc.

    • Yes, illegitimate children usually took their mother’s last name. But illegitimate children were quite uncommon. Another, andmute likely explanation, is that he went be a patronymic early in life and only adopted a last name later.

      • Thank you, that is very helpful information. In the US, most Houghtailings, Houghtalings and Hotalings can trace their ancestry to one orphan who came to New York in the 1600s and later adopted the last name. It was interesting to see the concept of patronymics in that case. In your opinion, how common is the Houghtailing name in the Netherlands (on a scale of 1-10, 1 being very common, 10 being rare)? I’m wondering if it was likely that other Houghtailings came over to the same area in New York between 1650-1800.

        • 10: never heard it before. It could have been an Americanization of a Dutch name, or the name could have a different origin. Many people from other countries, including the Baltic, settled in New Netherland.
          The archives of the Mayors of Amsterdam at the Amsterdam Court Archives have lists of orphans to be sent to the New World. It might be worthwhile to consult these lists. As far as I know, these lists have not been transcribed yet.

          • Thank you, that is very helpful information. I have found his first and middle name on documents regarding the program to send almshouse children in Amsterdam to the American colonies, and on a ship’s passenger list. It appears he didn’t take up the last name until he was well into his 20s. I will consider the archives you mentioned. Thank you again!

  10. On my ancestor’s birth certificate, no father’s name is given and the mother gives a fake name Thomasina Wilson. Somebody else with the same family tree branch thought this was a hint that the father’s name was Thomas Wilson. My ancestor had the surname Wilson on the 1881 census when she was four years old, though when her mother married when she was seven years old she took the surname of the man her mother married, who may or may not have been her biological father. Both men were seamen, and the mother had lived from childhood near the naval centre of Greenwich, London.

  11. nora douly says:

    Hi, I am an illigatamate child I am 69 years old and would love to find my father or siblings if I have any, I know his name and that he was a pilot of a piper cub plane that’s about the info that I have where would be the best place to start and I know where my mother was when she got pregnant

  12. Thankyou for the article and all the following comments. My family has a rumoured illegitimate son of the crown-prince of a European country. The mother was married off to a palace gardener and ‘removed’ to the country the committed suicide some time after giving birth. Just family lore, but supposedly someone in the family has the written account (who wrote it, I’m not sure). The child, however, was sickly and not strong enough to gain employment as a farmhand, but was educated through out school and university to become a teach, allegedly paid for by the palace. Although there really is no physical resemblance between the current king and my family now we are all in our 40’s – 60’s) there are surprising resemblances of the current king and one of my brothers when they were both in their early teens. How would I go about researching palace bookkeeping records to see if the account of the education and of my great-something-grandmother and grandfathers’ employment?

    • Hi Anna,
      What a fascinating family story, I can understand why you want to learn more. How you would go about researching depends on the country and time. In the Netherlands, the Royal House Archives are open to the public by appointment, but recent records are closed. I cannot give you advice about other countries.

  13. My grandmother had an iligitimate child my uncle. My nan spoke of a robert Irving born Scotland. Abt 1917 give or take 3 yrs plus . Apparently he came to Birmingham looking for work about 1938 /9 . I can’t find him on any cencus or electoral roll where my nan lived. My uncle life ambition was to get this clarified . I read all your article with enthusiasm and will have another attempt to find out . This is good research hints . I find the generation then are so tight lipped and this was neve spoke about. I did ask questions but looked at me in horror that was my late nans sister. Maybe she didn’t know . Hidden secret. My uncle took the surname of her husband who she had separated from after learning of his bigamist ways.

  14. Benjamin says:

    Hi

    Last year I posted a story about my illegitimate 2xgreat gran but it has not appeared yet on this comments section. About Thomas Roberts and Mary Ann Walder in 1863.

    Benjamin

    • I do not see your story in the unpublished comments. I sometimes delete stories about living people, but not for people who were born in the 1800s so I do not know what happened.

    • Benjamin says:

      Oh OK. I shall show the story again.

      On the 31st December 1863, my 2xgreat gran, Kate, was born. She died in 1943. She was the illegitimate daughter of Mary Ann Walder, an unmarried woman, daughter of the village wheelright in Sussex, England. She and Thomas Roberts, her soon to be husband moved away from the area shortly after the birth. The baby was then baptised in November 1864 as daughter of Thomas and Mary ann Roberts. Thos and Mary Ann wed in July 1864 at the same church they baptised the baby. At the time of Mary Ann Walder’s pregnancy Thomas was a servant, footman, and he was still married to his first wife Esther who died on the 14th Nov 1863 of a long illness. The death cert sais “several years”. Seems Thomas was seeing Mary Ann before his wife died. Also Thomas’ mum was into needlework as was Kate and her children. Also there is a good physical resemblance to Kate’s children and Thomas’ daughter Ann (born 1851) by his first marriage to Esther. Ann would be their half aunty. I have yet to find a photo of Kate but a distant cousin has pics of Thomas’s eldest daughter. Also Kate’s younger sister has very good facial resemblances to Kate’s children. Photographic evidence is a good thing.

  15. Sarah Brightbill says:

    I desperately want to find my birth father. I am 24 years old and have a daughter of my own. My birth certificate has my father listed as unknown. I’ve tried talking to my mom about it, but her story keeps changing or she just doesn’t answer me… I’ve tried searching the Internet for answers, but I keep coming up empty… is there a place where I can post my story so that others can read it and perhaps point me in the right direction? Please help me, I just really want to find out who he is…

  16. my biological mother was born illegitimately, as was her elder sibling, and, apparently, they both had different fathers. they were both born in london during ww2. the elder sibling uses the mother’s surname on her birth certificate, eg if my grandmother was called grace morris (she wasn’t) then the elder sibling’s name was put down as baby morris. my mother had the name, “jones” on her birth certificate, and i believe that ‘jones’ was commonly put as a surname for fatherless children. to my knowledge, she never used that surname, and used my grandmother’s maiden name, and then her stepfather’s name, sometimes, after my grandmother (re)married. the family rumour is that she was made pregnant by a visiting american gi, but i don’t know if that’s a romanticised idea – there are a lot of name changes and retelling of the truth in that family, even nowadays. i had three uncles who all used names different to their birthnames…!

    • How do you know if maybe the fathers name was not Jones. My father who was in England during ww2 is named jones and that was a common Canadian surname.

  17. Great article with some very useful tips. It has spurred me to re-vist my great great grandfather and see if I can discover anything about his biological father thank you 🙂

  18. Carolle van Someren says:

    My husbands grandfather was born illegitimate in 1883. Although she was from Nijkerk she had the baby in Voorthurien (not sure this is the correct spelling) or why she traveled there. I have managed to get a copy of his birth record filed by the midwife but there is no mention of the father. He was given the name Gijsbert van Someren which was her maiden name and the name of ther first husband who died nine years earlier. Gijsbert was cared for by one of her daughters from the first marriage until 1885 when she married Cornelious Herman ten Hoven. After Cornelious’ death in 1908 Gijsbert left the Netherlands for the United states and never spoke of the Netherlands again. We had my husbands DNA done in hopes of finding a possible birth father but after reading hour posts that seems very slim at best. Is there any hope? My husband is a direct male decendant and there is a genetic disorder called familial tremors which his grandfather, father and aunt all had as well as my husband. He is the last of his line and would love to know his family tree!

  19. My mother was claimed to have been raped when I was conceived. I have a strong feeling she may be lying and I believe my family is helping her keep her lies.. if people can trace your roots from where your family came. Can’t they track to a certain man?

  20. Hello Yvette,

    Thank you for this useful blog post. My 4x greatgrandfather is an unknown father. After her marriage, Trijntje Robijns Lijker, as a widow, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, who married a Van der Heide (my direct male ancestor). The midwife, Grietje Johannes, her (former) mother-in-law, registered the daughter in the civil registry. She was named after her mother: Trijntje Lijker (*1833, Harlingen).

    Trijntje Lijker her second son is named Melle, and all Van der Heides named Melle (quite a lot) are descendants of this branch. That’s mainly why I want to discover who this man was.

    In her marriage, she had 8 children, the eldest son (*1822, Harlingen) was named Melle as well. I have no clue why, because according to the naming conventions, I’d expect a Melle in the ancestors, but I found none.

    I will use some of your above mentioned tips & tricks as searching the baptism records. Are there any other suggestions you could give?

    Here is my relationship to my unknown 4 x greatgrandfather:
    http://genealogie.huizekuipers.nl/relationship.php?altprimarypersonID=&savedpersonID=I602&secondpersonID=&maxrels=1&disallowspouses=0&generations=15&tree=huizekuipers&primarypersonID=I11219

  21. Bob Zimensky says:

    So, here’s one from the other way-round: What if a man were trying to find out if he had a child somewhere that had not been acknowledged. I spent many years as a very promiscuous drunk. Somewhere on the order ot 300 sexual partners, so statistically, there’s a good chance there’s one or more out there. I am a different person now, and would like to find and make those things right, if possible. Any way you can think of to find out? Is there any sort of registry for people in my position?

  22. Annemarie van de Waal says:

    Thank you for the article. Hermen van de Waal, my 4xggfather, died in 1814 in Maurik. The age given means he was born in 1743. The Ingen parish register has:- trouwakte 11-27 Nov 1774 Hermen van de Waal jm geb en won te Ingen Margereta Tukker jd geb te Zoelen won te Ommeren ondertrouwd and getrouwd te Ommeren. There is no surviving baptism for Hermen. His parents are supposed to be Arien van de Waal and Ijda van de Valentijn, but they married 14 may 1747 in Maurik. Although the Dutch naming pattern was strict Hermen and Margereta had no son called Arien. Their first son was named Dirk and Arien and Ijda were sponsors. I also have a document (24 august 1778) which lists what happened to Arien’s messuage when he died and he left his property between Ijda his wife and Jan Willemsen and Jantje van Hoeven, Dirk van de Waal, and Gerrit de Bruine and Geertruyt van de Waal. Nothing for Hermen. Arien’s father was named Willem. There are Hermens in the van de Valentijn family further back. I have tested my brother’s Y-DNA. He is I-M253 but the only matches (2) are very distant indeed.

  23. Michael McCauslin says:

    Thanks for this post. I used several of these strategies by chance as I began researching my family tree in an attempt to identify my great grandmother’s father. My mother had such a close relationship with her grandmother, Retta Epley born in 1884, that I wanted to find out more to share with my mom. Amazingly, a simple Google search of Retta’s mother’s name, Mary Epley, led me to a county court record of a bastardy case she had filed in Mansfield, Ohio against a man named Woods Rose Mitchell. There was no verdict; the record stated that Mary had not appeared on the assigned court date, but checking census records, I discovered that in 1880, four years before Retta’s birth, Woods Rose Mitchell and Mary Epley were neighbors living with their respective families. Further research revealed a great deal about these two families and the further separate lives of Mary and Woods, each of whom married different spouses and raised extensive families. Retta was taken into the Children’s Home at the age of seven and indentured to a local family until the age of 16. (That’s another very compelling story too long to go into here…) The only additional bit of a clue I found that could link Mr. Mitchell as Retta’s father is the name he gave to the last child born with the woman he did marry, a girl who died shortly after birth or was stillborn. That girl was given the name Mary Etta. Possibly a coincidence but perhaps a remembrance to the child he knew he fathered years before. I have had several DNA matches with descendents of the Mitchells, but never a match with whom I didn’t share other possible ancestors, so the quest for certainty goes on. I will try some of the other strategies you describe to see what else I can discover.

  24. My father was born an illigitamate child in rural Alabama in 1928. He was told once as a child the name of his father which matched the name on his birth certificate. I spent quite a lot of time researching that name but really didn’t get too far. There was also a new birth certificate issued when Dad was 17 but cited his maternal grandfather as his Father. When I came across a 2-3rd cousin in my sisters results that didn’t fit anywhere I found the match only listed her father’s name and her mother’s married name and that’s all. I finally found her mother’s maiden name of Davidson on an obit. (I find obits often include maiden names of wives and children as well as the children’s spouses.) I then put together a basic tree on the match’s mother’s side after I came up with nothing on her father’s side. Next I found 8 undetermined dna matches in Ancestry.com’s “New Ancestor Discoveries “. that plugged right into that 2-3rd cousin’s tree. I am finding more and more of our matches that fit into that tree. I finally got my brother’s Y dna results that showed Davidson as the surname.
    The prime person I have found worked in the same cotton mill and lived close to grandma but is 23 years older than her. He was 40, she was 17, Not unheard of. All the Davidsons of this line lived 90 min. from Grandma when she got pregnant except this one . Of course a family member could have visited. Now to start writing emails to matches. This is a great article and I just thought my experience might help someone. I am always open to any help that is offered.
    Thank you Yvette .

  25. Karin Harms says:

    My question is about the note on a marriage record “Erk 1 kind”. A translation tool gave me the translation “Recognize 1 child.” In this case, the mother & father had a child in January and were married in February of the same year. They are both listed as his parents on the child’s birth civil registration. Does the note on the marriage record mean that the child has been legitimized?

  26. Trina Bauer says:

    I have this issue in reverse. Any tips would be well appreciated. My great uncle was in Frankfurt Germany during WW2. He fathered a child there. I have the first name of the woman but that is it. I have posted this info on an American Facebook page that helps people who are searching for the same sort of situation. I have also put this information on the German Facebook that is looking for “GI” babies. I have taken the ancestry DNA test. Still no hits. No one that is living recalls the name and most know nothing about it. I have one letter from this lady to my grandmother but nothing else. Also no address on the envelope.

  27. Yolette Stewart says:

    I have been researching one of my Dutch ancestors, Jantje de Roos (1829-1884). She had two children legitimately to her husband Diemer Visser (1827-1855) who died in the same year her second child, a daughter was born. These two children were named Jan (1852-1933) and Minke (1855-1890) respectively. Jantje then did not have children for about ten years. She then had two boys, Matthijs de Roos and Rein de Roos. Rein de Roos (1867-1917) is one of my direct ancestors and of course, I do not know who his father is.
    Most other people have listed on family trees Diemer Visser as the father but this is clearly incorrect due to the timing of his death and the fact that the boys carry the mother’s surname. (Jan and Minke carry Diemer’s surname.)
    As I don’t read Dutch very well I did my best to transcribe the names of persons who appeared as witnesses in the birth thinking clues might be there but couldn’t read one of the names very well. The same names appear on the birth certificates of both of the boys:
    1. Sytske van der Wal
    2. Bernadus van Weenen van Noord (an unusual surname, and I can only find only one such person on genealogieonline.nl born in 1826, no death date or family listed)
    3. W. (or H?) van Sus – this is the one I can’t read
    4. Dirk (?) Seussen (?) – this one is unclear too

    Given that the same names occur on both the boys’ certificates, Jantje must have been living in that household and known to the family and peoples there. When I researched Sytske van der Wal I found she was the second (childless) wife of a man whose only daughter had died young so the scope for unusual liaisons is high there.

    I realised that since Rein was able to marry later in life (Matthijs did not, it seems) the mother must have been given reasonable finances somewhere in the equation to care for the boys.

    There are no notes on paternity in side columns, which possibly suggests the relationship was adulterous (?), and which suggests the father would not or could not recognise the children legitimately.

    With whatever tactic I have taken I have not yet been able to locate the father of Rein and Matthijs; I think Jantje worked hard to keep the paternity unknown. I am also hampered by the fact that I don’t read Dutch very well. Are there any useful sites of clues you might be able to offer me at all Yvette?

    Thank you for your time – Yolette Stewart, Australia

    • The first thing would be to fully analyze the birth records and look at the informants and the notes in the margin. The article lays out other strategies: looking for the baptismal record, doing DNA testing, researching the potential fathers. Please contact me if you would like a proposal for me to do this research for you.

      • Yolette Stewart says:

        Thank you so much for your response – I do appreciate it.
        Hello again Yvette,

        Yes I did read the article very closely and have tried much of this.

        If you were to research the matter for me, how much would it cost in AUD ?

        I am not sure what I can afford but I might see if I can save my pennies.

        Regards,
        Yolette Stewart

  28. Hi Yvette, I have been researching for my grandmother’s biological family since 1989. She was left at The New York Foundling Hospital Orphanage at age 2 weeks by a woman who said she was her mother. The orphanage told me the woman only gave the baby’s name as Alice O’Connor and she was born Dec. 22, 1902 in Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. She supposedly did not divulge her or the fathers name. Alice remained there until 1905 when she was sent to Texas on the orphan train to a family who eventually adopted her in 1911. I have searched & there are no birth records for an Alice O’Connor around this date in 1902 -03. The orphanage had her baptized & sent me a copy of her baptism record. I did the Ancestry DNA test in Dec 2017 & some results came back connecting me to a family that has been in New York since the 1800’s. There is a picture of the man & woman I suspect who could be either of her parents. The family connection is through an Edward Logue who is in his 80’s, also his sister, her daughter & nephew are extremely high confidence matches as are some 1st cousins of theirs. The grandparents of Edward are the ones I suspect could be the father or the mother of Alice. There is a picture of both & their grandmother Sarah favors Alice a lot. Sarah & Edward (the grndfthr) didn’t marry until 1905. The family has no knowledge of any illegitimate child & I can’t find any kind of O’Connor connection with them. The centamorgans are 95 across 5 DNA segments between Edward (the grandson) & myself. Is there any way to figure out if or which one could be Alice’s parent? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Cyndi,
      If I understand you correctly, your theory is that your DNA match Edward Logue is your half first cousin once removed (his grandparent is your great-grandparent). At 95 cM shared DNA, chances are slim that he is indeed your half 1C1R; the relationship is likely more distant, as you can see in this chart. I recommend you examine the shared matches you have with him to try and pinpoint the line you both share. Also, if you could get other family members of yours to test, especially from the oldest generation, that would be helpful since you all inherited different segments from your grandmother.

      • Cyndi Lasala says:

        That’s the problem. My grandmother, dad, and all his siblings are deceased. Only myself and my cousins are alive. One of my older cousins did her DNA and the results came back about the same as mine with Edward. Is there any other way around it? Thanks for your help!

  29. Cyndi Lasala says:

    Also, I forgot to say, on Ancestry it has Edward & I listed as 3rd cousins, & on My Heritage it has us listed as 1st cousins 2 x removed. On chromosome 4, Edward, his sister his niece and myself all share a large exact square of 34.61 cm with 4342 matching SNPS. What would this mean? Thanks!

  30. Hi Yvette,

    I came across your article a while ago and it’s offered me lots of help in my genealogy research so far.
    One area I’m still struggling in is trying to identify my great-grandmothers biological father.
    My great-grandmother, Irene M Green (1912-2015), was born illegitimately to Elizabeth Green in Birmingham, England. It’s no secret in my family that she was born out of wedlock, as it was my gran herself who told me, but no one has ever been told who the father might be.
    I ordered her birth certificate and it’s confirmed for me that no father is listed on there either – the only thing that stood out for me was that the address my great-gran was born at, as it was different to the address that her mother, Elizabeth, was living at less than a year before with her family on the 1911 census. I looked up the address on the birth certificate and found out she was born in a workhouse, leading me to think she may have been kicked out of the house for getting pregnant. Since then my search has become stagnant. I was just wondering if had any advice to offer that might give me an idea that I haven’t thought of yet?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

    • Have you done DNA testing yet? That may give you some clues about possible candidates. Also the workhouse records may show when she arrived, which should tell you if she was living there when she got pregnant. If she lived there, you could check the other workhouse residents to see if any of them look familiar based on your DNA results. It may require you to build trees for the others in the workhouse at the same time.

  31. Hello Yvette!

    I’d first like to start by saying your site has been incredibly helpful in my genealogical search. My paternal grandmother’s family originated from Holland and I’ve recently been working on trying to find my 4X great grandfather’s father. Jelte Huizinga (born 23 November 1828) was one of five illegitimate children born to Jantje Pieters Huizinga (also known as Jantje Hendriks Huizinga). I’ve looked at all of the children’s birth records and none of them state a father. I have a few ideas of what may be the case but I’m not sure. My first idea is that her step-father Pieter Romkes Roepstra is the father. He’s the informant on her first child’s birth record, he’s significantly younger than her mother (by 17 years), her fifth child’s name is Omke (which is nowhere else in her family tree to my knowledge) and he died a year after her last child was born. Of course this is just speculation but it would also explain why Jantje went by Jantje Pieters Huizinga instead of Jantje Hendriks Huizinga after a while. My other idea is that she was a prostitute. From what I’ve seen, five illegitimate children is rare. Jantje was never married to my knowledge and the first three birth records say she was unemployed. Where do you think I should start next? I’ve looked at birth records for all of the children, her mother’s death record, Pieter’s death record, marriage records of all the children, and I’ve tried looking for church records but have been out of luck so far. Thank you!

    • Have any of the descendants taken a DNA test? Also, the fact that he was the informant is not in itself cause for suspicion. In the absence of a father, regulations required that the person attending the birth (midwife, doctor) or the owner of the house where the child was born went to the registrar. So the could have been acting in his capacity as head of the household. Neither are the patronymics strange; if he raised her like a father you would expect some records to use his name as her patronymic. I agree with you that five illegitimate children is rare and if she was living at home the whole time, the stepfather should definitely be considered as a possible candidate.
      I have encountered a similar situation where the stepfather married an older woman and then had a relationship with several of her daughters. One of them was a minor and he went to jail for improper conduct with a minor. DNA proved he was also the father of another daughter’s child. Researching the stepfather, including court records, may sheds some more light on his character.

      • Thank you for your reply! The only reason I question the patronymics is because the step father came into her life when she was 17. She also named her child Omke (presumably after him) many many years after her mother died and he would’ve been out of her life. I haven’t taken DNA tests yet and am thinking about having my great aunts take them since they would be closer descendants. I’m not able to find many court records for Groningen online. The family search unindexed records are difficult for me to understand but I’ll keep searching!

      • Also, I just ran into something new in a marriage certificate. On the marriage record for one of Jantje’s son it says, “bruidegom niet door moeder erkend” which i assume translates to “Groom not recognized by mother”. I’ve never seen this note before. What does it mean?

        • In a birth record of an illegitimate child, the informant is not one of the parents. To prevent fraud, the mother is later required to register that she acknowledges the child. This is often done years later, for example around the time a child has to go into the military or before the child is married. If the mother fails to do that, the marriage record of the child would mention that the mother did not recognize the child.

  32. Doris Waggoner says:

    Yvette,

    How fascinating, and useful.

    In 1798, in Schenectady, NY, my ggg grandmother, then 17, had an illegitimate daughter. She recorded this birth in her Dutch New Testament, just by first name. Sheh recorded the surnames of the rest of her children, after her marriage. I’ve always wondered if this was a consensual relationship, a rape, or something between. Research shows that in 1800, 1/3 of mothers in New York were unmarried at the birth of their first child. A good genealogist found the child’s baptismal record for me, with the father’s name **upside down.** I was told this was the “code” for an illegitimate child. The other clue was that the child’s name did not fit the names in the mother’s family, either back in time, or forward. But the name was that of the father’s mother, following the naming convention of the time. If my ancestor thought that would encourage him to marry her, she was wrong, as he married someone else between the birth and the baptism.

    The person who verified the child’s father for me searched for her in later records, and couldn’t find her anywhere. She assumed the child didn’t live long. And even though the child was given the name of the grandmother, in 1800 there were at least 6 men in Schenectady with the same name given in the baptismal record, who were of about the right age to be the father.

    Given those circumstances, would DNA be of any help in trying to verify that the man we think was the father really was? Who would I test? My brother’s been tested, as has a male third cousin on that side. They and several others in my generation have all done autosomal testing. It never occurred to any of us until I read your splendid article that DNA might be helpful. Would it? Is it too many generations back? Nobody’s still alive in a generation older than we are.

    Thanks for all your work,
    Doris

    • Doris Waggoner says:

      The farthest back we’ve gotten in matches is two generations before my ggg grandmother. We do have several thousand total matches, many of them showing little or no connection. The man I’m looking for may be there if I’d be more patient and go through the whole list! Would it be worth it? My understanding of DNA and what it tells me isn’t very complete, I admit!

      Doris

      • Chances of sharing DNA with that particular ggg grandfather are small. I would recommend testing as many descendants as you can from that illegitimate daughter, preferably from different branches. Any shared DNA between them was likely from their parents. You could use DNA Painter (http://www.dnapainter.com) to try and map different segments of your DNA to different ancestors to see if you can isolate pieces that came from that line. You can do the same for other descendants and then try to make sense of your matches. But since it’s so long ago, that is a long shot.

  33. Colleen Ressler says:

    Hi
    We have been attempting to trace my friends bio father. She was born in 1941. She is mainly interested in what he was like are there siblings, etc.
    It appears the Sur name she was given of her father is incorrect as we can not locate the three names together anywhere. However we have located the first two names with a different Sur name. Aside from the name issues there are quite a few other things that match. We located this info in 2016. We did talk to the owner of the Ancestry site then and in 2017 and 2018. Once she got her DNA results back stating he is either close family or at least 1st cousin. The man stopped responding. We have asked for a picture as we have one with her mother to compare. Question, what other avenues do we have in trying to prove this is her father and the manager of the site I believe is her 1/2 brother ??

    • How many cM of DNA do they share? You can see that by going to the match’s page and then clicking the (i) button after the predicted relationship. Half siblings share an average of 1700 cM. If the match is on GedMatch.com you can compare there in more detail.

  34. Hello We recently found my teenage Grandsons father. It took about 18months by DNA and it was a match to a third cousin to find the father.

    I am now on a quest to find my Husbands Great Grandfather. My husband was born in the Netherlands . His Grandfather was born in Utrecht in 1887 no father listed.
    I just found out this week by checking records the Grandfather had a sister and no father listed there. The sister was born in 1885 and passed away in 1885.
    My husbands Great Grandfather (not biological is believed) married my husbands biological Great Grandmother. On their marriage certificate in 1896 it legitimatized my husbands Grandfather. Seeing the parents were married about 9 years after he was born it seems likely the father was not biological.

    The supposed Great Grandfather wasn’t Dutch so his name is very unusual for Holland.

    We are trying to find out if the Great Grandfather actually adopted the boy or the marriage legitimatized it ? As you say the notation is on the marriage certificate

    • If a child is legitimized at the time of the marriage of his mother, there won’t be adoption papers because the child then had two legal parents. There would be no court documents for a legitimization at the time of the marriage. All that was required was for the bride and groom to acknowledge the child as their own. It would then be recorded in the marriage record and a note would be made in the margin of the birth record. The only way for there to be adoption papers is if someone else would adopt the child, but there would be a note in the margin of the birth record for that too.

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