How to Find an Ancestor’s Missing Parents

Blog reader Mary J. can’t find her ancestor’s parents. Sometimes, when the records don’t tell you who an ancestor’s parents are, you have to prove it yourself. My blog post today will show how this is done.

Here is Mary’s question:

My 2nd great grandmother might have been named Mary Smith, born abt 1818 and died aft 1885, all in Adams Co. Ohio I believe.  I found  marriage information for her and Job Washington Denning (1817-1904) for the year 1846, I think they married in West Union township Adams Co. Ohio.  There are several children documented being born to Job and Mary after the year 1846.
The problem is that my great grandmother Mary Jane Denning Blakemore was born in the year 1844.

My mother told me that her  grandmother ( my great-grandmother) Mary Jane Denning Blakemore 1844-1925 had two older sisters named Harriet G. Denning Vance 1841-1924 and another sister I have not been able to find any information, her name was Julia Denning. They were all born in Adams Co. I believe.


Click the image to see the entire entry.

I found information through Ancestry for Harriet Denning Vance.  One source claimed that Harriet’s mother was named Mary Grimes. I proceeded to look for Grimes families in Adams co. and did find several but really nothing specific for a Mary Grimes.

In the 1840 census for Tiffin township Adams co. Ohio I found Washington Denning ( the first name Job was omitted) listed  with two other individuals both in the 20-30 age column, one was male and the other female. Of course I am thinking the female was his wife…Mary Grimes?  But no way of finding anything else in this census decade…of course.

I also have not been able to find Job Washington Denning listed in the 1850 or 1860’s census on Ancestry I think due to  spelling errors in each census.

I am guessing that I would need to search church records for Tiffin town ship and surrounding areas for marriage and birth records.

I also  found information for my great-grandmother Mary Jane Denning that her mother was named Mary Smith….

What I ultimately would like to know my Maternal lineage going past my great grandmother Mary Jane Denning Blakemore.

Mary, what you are experiencing here is a common circumstance in genealogy: lots of “maybe” matches, but no records that point, 100%, to your ancestor’s parents.

When this happens, you should:

1) Sort out the different Marys and their records in a spreadsheet.

Using Excel, I made a sample sheet based on the limited information I received in your question to me:


Take all the information you have collected, put it into a chart, then you can begin to discover if Mary’s mother will be found via records, or via a case of circumstantial evidence.

As you can see, this spreadsheet has some holes in it. For example, you mention that “One source claimed that Harriet’s mother was named Mary Grimes.” But what source was it? This needs to be listed in the spreadsheet, so that we can weigh the information presented by different sources. Also, you never said where you got Mary Jane Denning’s birthdate (so that part is blank on the spreadsheet)

2) Expand your search to include offline records.

The records available on the internet are often riddled with scanning or indexing errors, so you will learn much more about your ancestors if you look for them in offline records. Be sure to read this article:

Here are some offline records available for Adams County, Ohio:

These are the types of records on film that can be rented at any FamilySearch Center (there is one in almost every county in the US). Click on this image to view and navigate the actual list.

Within that list, I would start with “Vital Records,” first:


Vital records for Adams County that can be rented on film at a FamilySearch Center–there is a lot that can be searched!

You will also want to look at the records for Tiffin Township, which aren’t as extensive as the county records, but worth checking out nonetheless:


Click on the image to view and navigate the actual list of records/collections


A closer look at the Tiffin Town records collections available to rent on film. Click on this image to view more.

You can also find more of Adams County’s offline records at the FamilySearch wiki page for Adams County, Ohio; it lists lots of other places you can find their records online, too. And don’t forget to use Google for genealogy–quickly Googling a couple of your ancestors’ names, I found great stuff like this Rootsweb entry.

3) Write a proof argument.

If–after extensive research in offline records–the records don’t come right out and tell you who Mary Jane Dennings’ parents are, you will have to prove who they are yourself.

To prove an ancestor’s identity without the help of direct evidence from historical records, you write a “Proof Summary” based on the circumstantial evidence (or “indirect evidence” some people call it) that the records seem to imply. To learn how this is done, I recommend that you buy a copy of The Legal Genealogist’s Legacy Webinar, entitled “Building a Family from Circumstantial Evidence.”


When the records don’t give you a smoking gun, you can sometimes piece it together yourself, with evidence from a number of sources. This lecture on CDROM will teach you how!

You can also read a sample proof summary here, and a how-to article here.

If you still feel lost or uncertain after completing steps #1 and #2 in this post, please send me your evidence log (excel sheet) and I would be happy to look over it and help you decide how to proceed. Personally, I think proof summaries are tons of fun–they really bring out the inner detective/lawyer in all of us! 🙂

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Good luck!


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