I am researching a branch of the family tree and attempting to identify the mother.

In this particular example there are three people with the same first and last name as the known mother of the child's within 60 miles of the farming community in which the child was born. Those potential mothers were 14 (barely), 16, and then someone known to already be married at the time for some time who also had children in that marriage.

My particular time period is 1900-1930 time frame in the Illinois / Iowa area and I ask the general question as I am not finding any luck finding the specific records so far in a couple date bases and have also contacted IRAD which does not have them so am looking for alternative ways to identify this type of information more generally (not specific to my question). That is assuming that a mothers name may be listed but flagged some how or not listed and a secondary resource has to be referenced.

That all being said, my question is: Was there any particular convention for documenting unwed mothers or was there any practice of documenting or denoting they were unwed, father unknown, denoted as a non-marrying age, or 'politely sweeping it under the carpet' but still creating some sort of record?

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    Could you re-write your first paragraph to make it more clear? I appreciate that you haven't named names, but as written, it is confusing. While you are looking for an answer specific to this time and place, you might find some ideas of things to search in Find My Past's article Adoption records and genealogy. Online statues for the area should reveal the age at which women needed permission to marry. The phrase "legally omitted" under the parents' name might be a clue about a birth that took place outside of marriage.
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 4, 2014 at 21:30
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    Google Books might reveal reports generated by the states with statistics about the number of births to unwed mothers, which would be useful for background information and context; they might provide clues about what state agency produced records.
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 4, 2014 at 21:33
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    @JanMurphy Thanks for link and Re-worded. I do not believe the individual was adopted by grandparents officially. I believe there was another thread that said specifically also adoption records tend to be sealed and unscanned / microfilmed if they still exist.
    – CRSouser
    Dec 4, 2014 at 21:36
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    One thing to keep in mind: when something is documented, it is often because there was a legal requirement to do so -- so the laws that were in effect at the time of the birth are a pointer to what records might have been created, and who holds them. Your particular person of interest may not have been adopted, but how-to articles about genealogy and adoption might hold clues about the problems of searching for or identifying births outside of marriage. You aren't likely to find (at least, I hope not) "scarlet letter" lists of women who bore children outside of marriage.
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 4, 2014 at 22:09
  • Clarification to above: you are more likely to find records whose descriptions have something to do with births rather than mothers. For example: recently added to Ancestry: West Yorkshire, England, Bastardy Records, 1690-1914; during the what's new video Crista Cowan said that there are some records of this type in the USA, mainly from the colonial period.
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 5, 2014 at 0:47

1 Answer 1


I am presuming here that the child in question is one who was not formally adopted, and was kept within the extended family (not put into any sort of institution/orphanage/etc), but not raised by his/her birth mother.

Records relating to the birth

A birth certificate will normally make it clear if the birth was out of wedlock, but may also contain further useful details. For Illinois, statewide registration began in 1916 (general compliance by 1922), and a birth certificate after these dates (towards the end of your stated period) will list mother's birthplace and age, which even if a little inaccurate may allow you to distinguish between candidates.

If no other information other than mother's name is listed, the next most important field is the address of birth. This may turn out to be a hospital or mother's home which holds its own records of birth or admission (these may be difficult to access, however). Or, if the birth was at home, you may be able to link this address to other members of the family who lived there.

Depending on the religious faith of the family, there may also be a baptism record in addition to (or instead of) a birth certificate. If you are uncertain of precisely where the family lived or which church they attended, this may be difficult to track down, however. This may give slightly different information than the birth certificate, or useful additional information (i.e. names of godparents).

Records after the birth

Marriage and death records for the child may shed further light on parentage, but can be very hit and miss as often the child themselves was not fully aware of the details. Any details on these records should be taken with a pinch of salt - particularly details of "father" who was sometimes an invented character!

A child born 1900-1930 in the US who survived to adulthood should appear on at least one publicly available US census record (the latest available being 1940 at the time of writing), which can be a very useful way of establishing which extended family group the child belonged to.

Listed relationship to relatives in the census may be vague ("cousin") or not be entirely truthful - i.e. the child of a 14 year old unmarried mother may appear in censuses as her "younger sibling" - raised as the child of the grandparents. A large gap between children or a "mother" who would have been well over childbearing age can be signs of this. Again, in this case where you know the listed mother in the census was not the birth mother, it becomes almost entirely certain that the real mother is a part of the same family.

Another place where relationships between family are sometimes clarified are in documents surrounding death - not the death records specifically but in obituaries, death notices, and probate records. Money may be left to a "grandchild" or "nephew/niece", or they may be included in lists of surviving relatives.

If newspaper records for the town in which the family lived are indexed, these can be a goldmine - especially for small towns. Expect not to see specifics of the family dirty laundry, but general notices mentioning visiting family ("John Smith of Chicago is visiting his grandparents, Mr and Mrs WT Smith, in Smalltown"), mentions of relationships in court cases ("John Smith, aged 8, nephew of the above witness..."), etc. If the names are very common in the area these references might be hard to disentangle.

  • Be aware that people can and do use fake names on birth certificates, especially if the child is illegitimate. The names of both parents on my grandmother's birth certificate were false.
    – Jack
    Jul 28, 2017 at 3:32

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