How to Find Descendants in the United States

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

See also United States, How to Find Genealogy Records

The goal of descendancy research is to find the children (and spouses), grandchildren (and spouses), and so forth of an ancestral couple. Descendancy research starts farther back in time and moves toward the present.

Motives for descendancy research. Researchers sometimes do descendancy research in order to:

  • contact relatives who have moved to distant lands
  • show a relationship to a famous ancestor
  • find genealogical evidence such as the family Bible of a common ancestor
  • return a family heirloom such as an old photograph
  • find heirs of an unclaimed rich estate
  • locate possible compatable organ donors
  • identify family members who may have an inherited tendancy toward a disease
  • publish an article in a genealogical journal like the New England Historical and Genealogical Society Register
  • submit an application for certification with the Board for Certification of Genealogists
  • research direct-line ancestors and their children.
  • locate living descendants of ancestors for DNA testing purposes.


Value of Descendancy Research[edit | edit source]

More names per generation. One advantage of descendancy research is the potential number of names you could find. Most families have more than two children per couple. If all those children marry and have more than two children, there is a potential to find more relatives by descendancy research than in the same number of generations of pedigree research. However, to be fair, pedigree researchers also usually research the immediate children of each couple on their pedigree. In theory, assuming each generation has exactly four children who live, marry once, and have exactly four children, in three generations, pedigree researchers would find 42 relatives (counting spouses and immediate children), and descendancy researchers would find 106 relatives. With larger families the difference can increase dramatically. This way of counting names does not change the number of actual people who have lived—it only changes because of who you count as a relative. 

Descendancy research 3.jpg


Find people who are doing research for names that tie into your pedigree.  If you can locate a genealogical collection that someone else has done, you can get in touch with them and share information and sources--extending your pedigree.

More clues. Descendancy research can lead you to important clues, contacts, or records such as family Bibles that you might not find if you researched only direct ancestors and their immediate children. Collaborating with new contacts about the new clues you find may help you get past dead ends in your ancestral research.

To understand the family better. Understanding the children often leads to more information about the parents. The best researchers seek to understand a family in community context. Learning about descendants is part of understanding the family's community and why they lived their lives the way they did.

More recent records are usually easier to find, more complete, and easier to understand. Descendancy research takes advantage of more recent records over earlier, usually harder-to-find older records.

Risks of Descendancy Research[edit | edit source]

It may increase the chances of an error. If the goal is to gather as many names as fast as possible, there is a risk the research and documentation will become casual or sloppy. Undue haste may result in unnecessary duplication of research and name submissions.

Also, descendancy researchers are sometimes trying to prove their relationship to a famous ancestor. When celebrity is involved, there is a greater temptation to make child to parent linkage decisions than cannot be proved.

It may be harder. Some genealogists consider descendancy research more difficult than pedigree research. This is because finding children is sometimes more difficult than finding parents. There are always exactly two parents of each child, but the number of children of each set of parents can vary widely. In many cases there tends to be more documents that are likely to name the parents of a child, and fewer documents that list all the children of a set of parents. Finding children who died young and between censuses is often more difficult than finding parents.

On the other hand, some genealogists consider descendancy research easier—an opportunity to snatch the low-hanging fruit[1] by the wagon full.

No shortage of pedigree names. It is true you can find more names in three generations of descendancy research than in three generations of pedigree research. So what? There is no shortage of names for a pedigree researcher willing to go back a few more generations and concentrate on the immediate children of direct line ancestors.

Latter-day Saints have the responsibility to research direct-line ancestors and their children. Further, living children and spouses may wish to have the work postponed for near relatives. Acting in conflict with the wishes of the closest living relative can result in bad feelings.[2] Mass descendancy research and submissions by an overzealous distant cousin often deprive more closely related family members of the joy of contributing work on their nearer relatives.

Protect privacy and the feelings of others. When doing descendancy research please be protective of the privacy of living people. Please be respectful and considerate of the feelings of living relatives regarding their deceased ancestors.

Doing Descendancy Research
[edit | edit source]

     Steps of Descendancy Research

Step 1: Prepare

Step 2: Choose a Starting Family

Step 3: Collect Previous Research

Step 4: Consult Additional Sources

Step 5: Compile and Share What You Have Learned

Step 1: Prepare[edit | edit source]

Fill in a pedigree chart, or locate a pedigree chart for your family. This chart will provide some dates and places to help you get started.

Step 2: Choose a Starting Family[edit | edit source]

Do you have an ancestor about whom you are curious? Have you heard intriguing stories about a great-grandparent? Possibly you are looking for a genetic connection to a great uncle who may have had the same illness you have just had diagnosed. Many reasons may spark your interest in a particular individual or family. Regardless of how you decide, the first step is to choose an individual or family to use as the starting point.

Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you get started:

  • Begin with what you know. If you already know the names of your great-grandparents and approximately when and where they were married, it will be much easier to search for their descendants.
  • Begin with individuals or families alive around 1850. People who lived in the period from the mid-1800s to the present are usually easier to find. In many countries, birth, and death records began to be created by the mid-1800s. Also, some countries began to keep census records showing the names and ages of each family member.
  • Record what you find on family group records. A family group record will enable you to record information for all the children in a family, parents and grandparents. As you search for the descendants of your ancestors, family group records will help you organize your work.

Step 3: Collect Previous Research[edit | edit source]

Someone else may have already started gathering information about the family you have selected. Your extended family members may have this information, or you may be able to find it in published family histories or on the Internet.

Expert Tip: Many family histories can be accessed on the Internet. You can also request them at your local library through an interlibrary loan system, or they can be sent to a family history center. The following are great places to start your search for family histories:

Finding family records. Contact family members for information. They may have access to family Bibles, photographs, letters, and personal histories, or they may know where you can go to find these records.

Expert Tip: Your search may result in several sources of information about an ancestor. These records may not be accurate or complete, but they will give you a starting point.

Finding published family histories. Family histories may give genealogical information about one or more generations of a family. They are a great place to start, but verify information you find in published family histories for accuracy.

You may find family histories in libraries in the area where your ancestors lived. The Library of Congress and the Family History Library also have extensive collections of published family histories.

Finding Internet information compiled by others. Internet genealogical databases are another possible source. Someone may have already posted information on the family you are seeking. A quick search of web sites may yield complete and well-documented research that only requires verification. You may even discover family members with whom you can collaborate.

A good place to start your search for family information that has been compiled by others is This site has several compiled databases that may help you find information, including the Ancestral File, the Pedigree Resource File, and the International Genealogical Index (IGI).  Websites such as GenWeb and Rootsweb have collections of genealogies.  You may want to post on genealogy boards the names and timeframe you are searching for, in order to get in touch with others who are looking for the same people.  Ancestry has both genealogy collections and a board for posting notes.

Internet search engines. Search engines, such as Google or Yahoo, help you learn if someone has posted information on the Internet about your ancestors or their descendants. Search engines may help you find pedigree charts, family Websites, cemetery records, personal histories, family Bibles, and so forth.

Expert Tip: You may find many references to your ancestor in a search engine, especially if he or she has a common name. The following search strategies can help to narrow your search:
  • To search for an exact phrase or name, put quotation marks around your search terms. For example, search on "John K. Doe" (typing the quotation marks into the search box). Also try putting the surname first and the given name second—“Doe, John K.”
  • You many also want to try the name without middle initials.
  • Remember to try alternate spellings, abbreviations, nicknames, and so forth.
  • Try adding a place name or date to your search terms. For example, to find all the Werths from Chicago, enter a search phrase like Werth Chicago
  • Try typing the family name, along with the word "genealogy" or "family history."

Quick Reference Chart 1 – Where to Look for Previous Research

Internet Resource




Published Family Histories

The FamilySearch Catalog has an index of published family histories.

Click here to use the Surname Search of the FamilySearch Catalog

Enter the family name in the search box; then check the search results. If the book has been microfilmed, you may be able to view a copy of it through your local family history center. For common surnames, choose Keyword Search in the FamilySearch Catalog and add an additional surname or the name of the location where the family lived to narrow the search.

Compiled Family Genealogies

Use the Pedigree Resource File (PRF) to see if someone has already identified some or all of the children in the family you are researching.

Click here to search  the Pedigree Resource File

Enter the family name and fill in other boxes you might have information for; then click Search. There may be multiple results. Look for records that include spouse and children. Remember that records in the Pedigree Resource File may not always be accurate or complete. Use them as a starting point.

Internet Search Engines 

A search engine may help you find documents anywhere on the Internet that mention the search name you entered. This search often leads to descendant data.

Click here  to use the Google search engine, or click here to use Yahoo

Type in the information in the search box; then click Search. Click on the links that seem to contain relevant information. Narrow the search by placing quotation marks around the first and last name—“John K. Doe.” Try putting the surname first—“Doe, John K.” If you do not get any relevant results, try searching without the middle initial or middle name. If you get too many results, try adding a place name or a date.

Broadening your search. A quick review of published family histories, compiled genealogies, and resources on the Internet will tell you how much research may still be needed. For information on how to do basic research, go to How to Begin a Search for Your Ancestor.

Step 4: Consult Additional Sources[edit | edit source]

Five record types are especially rich in descendant information:

Expert Tip: Search a few census pages before and after a family for possible relatives living nearby. Watch for similar names or place of origin.

The U.S. 1900 and 1910 censuses give the number of children born to a mother, and how many were still living.

Census Records. Censuses show where a family lived. When you know where someone lived you can search for other records created for them in that place. Censuses also may list all living members of a family, and tell their relationship to the head of house.  The best researchers use ALL the censuses available for every member of a family.

  • To use the British 1881 census index online click here and in the Census field select the 1881 British Census.
  • For links to the Canadian census indexes online click here and scroll down to the Census Records section to select a province and census year.
  • For links to the United States census indexes online click here and select a state and census year.

Wills and probate records. Some jurisdictions have wills or probate records useful to genealogists as early as the 1600s. Wills commonly list children by name. Even if your ancestor did not leave a will, a probate record containing a list of possible heirs may still exist. Wills and probate records are generally kept on a county level, so you will need to have some idea of where your ancestors died to find a will. To see probate records available at the Family History Library and Family History Centers, click here and follow these steps:

  1. In the Place field, type the name of the county where your ancestor resided.
  2. In the Part of field, type the name of the state in which the county is located.
  3. Look for "Probate Records" listed among the record types. Microfilms of the listed records are available in the Family History Library and may be available for viewing at a local family history center.
Expert Tip: You can search for town histories as well as county histories.

County and local histories. County histories often identify families and some of their descendants. To see what county histories are available in the Family History Library and Family History Centers, click here and follow these steps:

  1. In the Place field, type the name of the county where your ancestor resided.
  2. In the Part of field, type the name of the state in which the county is located.
  3. Look for "History" among the record types. Microfilms of the listed records are available in the Family History Library and may be available to viewing from a local family history center.

Church records. Many churches kept christening (baptism) records showing a child and parents. If you can guess the denomination of your ancestor, look for church records. To see church records available at the Family History Library and Family History Centers, click here and follow these steps:

  1. In the Place field, type the name of the town (or county) where your ancestor resided.
  2. In the Part of field, type the name of the state in which the town or county is located.
  3. Look for "Church Records" among the record types.
  4. Look for the denomination of your ancestor's family. Sometimes there is more than one church for that denomination, and sometimes none will be listed.
If the Family History Library does not have the records, you may want to call a church directly. Many directories are available on the Internet to help you find the telephone number of a church.

Expert Tip: The U.S. Social Security Death Index shows the birth date, death date, and death place of Social Security card holders who have died. The index covers deaths from 1962 to the present. Click here to search one of the free versions of this index.

Obituaries. By the 1870s local newspapers often published obituaries listing the surviving relatives of the deceased and sometimes their residence. To find an obiturary you must guess the death date and newspaper where the obituary would have been published.

Modern newspapers archives in each state have microfilm copies of most old newspapers. Click here for the U.S. Newspapers Program and scroll to the state to learn the contact information for the newspaper archives for your ancestor's state. Ask the archivist how you can find obituaries in the best local newspapers, or arrange an inter-library loan for newspaper microfilms.

Some obituary archives are already available on the Internet. For example:

Step 5: Compile and Share What You Have Learned[edit | edit source]

Each time you find information about an ancestor, document it as you go. Good documentation will increase the value of your work when you share it with others. Sharing research with others helps verify the findings, and leads to new information.

Document what you find. As you identify the members of your ancestral families, put the information on research logs and family group records. The family group record is the most widely-used means for recording information about parents and their descendants.

Several computer programs make the creation and updating of family group records and descendancy charts easier. You can download programs starting from the FamilySearch home page.

Share Your Research. There are many ways to share. You could put up a genealogical web page, publish a genealogical magazine article, or publish a book, or contribute to a genealogical databases like the Pedigree Resource File.

Conclusion Finding the descendants of your ancestors can be rewarding. This approach to family history research will help you find hundreds of relatives you would have missed had you focused your research only on your ancestors. It might also provide the clues and information you need to get past dead ends in your search for ancestors. Descendancy research will help you locate living relatives you didn’t know about. You can collaborate with living relatives and share the workload with others. Learning about the children, grandchildren, and even the great-grandchildren of your ancestors gives you a more complete picture of your family.

Related Content
[edit | edit source]

Descendancy research.jpg

Sources[edit | edit source]

  1. Sam Lower, "Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit," Ensign, April 2007, 46. On the Internet with the article by George D. Durrant, "Branching Out on Your Family Tree," Ensign, April 2007, 44-47.
  2. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, A Member's Guide to Family History Work (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1993), 14.