We all have them, those pesky ancestors who’ve been lurking at the top of a branch of our family tree for years, or even decades. They seem to have come from nowhere. We are desperately searching for their parents so we can extend the line but the necessary records elude us.
The first step is to revisit the life of that ancestor to ensure that you haven’t missed a clue. If they live into the period of the census returns, track them in every census, not just one. Look for deaths, burials, obituaries and gravestones. Some of these records will give a clue as to a date of birth, even if they do not suggest a place. Sometimes the results will be inconsistent. Use as many records as possible to establish when the ancestor was born and then accept that they all may be wrong!
When calculating a date of birth remember that you do not just subtract the age in the document from the year of the record, which is what the data providers do when compiling their indexes. For example, most UK censuses were taken in late March or early April. At that point ¾ of the population will not have had their birthday in that year. It is more accurate therefore to take away the age in the census+1 when estimating a birth year. In any case you want to narrow the date span as much as possible.
If an individual claims to be 27 when they married on 20 December 1874, then they were born between 21 December 1846 and 20 December 1847. If that same individual was aged 43 in the 1891 UK census, which was taken on 30 March, then their date of birth was between 31 March 1847 and 30 March 1848. If they were 73 when they died on 15 July 1921, then their birthdate was between 16 July 1847 and 15 July 1848. Taking these three pieces of information together, you now have a birthdate between 16 July 1847 and 20 December 1847 providing all these ages are accurate. You may need to widen your date search. Remember the legal ages for marriage. In the UK these remained at 12 for girls and 14 for boys until as late as 1929. For female ancestors their child bearing years will give some clue as to possible birth years.
There are various reasons for failing to find the much needed birth or baptism entry. Are you looking under the wrong version of the surname? Names are misheard, mis-read and mis-transcribed. Mis-hearing and mis-reading lead to different variations. Ask others to write the spoken surname to see what mis-hearing might lead to; remember regional accents will make a difference. Note commonly confused capital letters: I & J or L, S T & F, for example. Use wildcards in your searches.
Some people change their surnames altogether, for a number of reasons. In some cases, it may be possible to search using just a forename, date and place of birth, then the resulting possibilities can be investigated to see if they might have become your ancestor.
Is the forename wrong? If you have John Henry, try Henry John. Consider nicknames: Jack and John, Polly and Mary Ann, Jenny and Jane. Remember that UK birth registrations were sometimes done before a name was decided upon, so they may appear as Male or Female ----.
Are you looking in the right place? People often believe they were born in the place where they spent their early childhood but this is not always so. Might they have been born further afield,? Perhaps the family was away from home at the time, or even overseas.
Sometimes, sadly, the record we are seeking never existed, or has not survived. In this case we have to turn to alternative sources and rely on luck to take us further.