How do you record a person you know existed, but with no (or limited) other details?



The Census of England and Wales 1911 asked for each married woman -- the number of children born alive to this marriage, and the number still living.

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This information can reveal the existence of children (living in 1911 or not) in addition to those on the Schedule or already known from other sources.

When I found such an extra sibling to an ancestor, I was inclined to create an entry with the father's surname, dates qualified by before or after, and little else.

This served as a prompt (perhaps even a goad) for me to locate the missing information, but is it considered good practice? Are there better methods than a placeholder for indicating a person about whom (at this time) you know very little?


Posted 2012-10-13T12:06:29.037

Reputation: 13 238



Many good suggestions have been made, but I would like to emphasize this notion that when you discover new information and find it is not consistent with your research-in-process, that the likely "unresolved conflict" is additional information you have discovered. In other words, while I might ponder how to enter the data from the census, it is equally important that I enter/give notice of the conflict.*

We know that conflicts like this may have many dimensions.

  • Which information is correct or is it all wrong? (Including the possibility that there may be other clues, as with the case of ColeValleyGirl's gaps.)
  • It may be that the child count is right, but that the surviving number of children is right or wrong, but in conflict with your information.
  • What if the census record reports not more, but fewer "known" children--say it reports six children born to the marriage, but you have nine recorded?
  • (For a similar US census, you would question if there had been children born to different union.)

The best time to make the record of the conflict is when the logic, reasoning and references are fresh in your mind.

*Recognizing that not all conflicts are equal.


Posted 2012-10-13T12:06:29.037

Reputation: 8 477

Recognizing that not all conflicts are equal ... adding that the composition of the immediate family is significant. This includes that losing a child would be a material event in most families. – GeneJ – 2012-10-13T20:02:53.740


That's pretty well what I do: Record a Child as /Roberts/ (no first name, no gender) with a "died before" date of the relevant census and citing the relevant census source.

My software package also allows me to record a 'Child Count' for an individual, so I also do this for the mother (again citing the census) and add a note explaining why this child is not one of the other known children, e.g.

The 1911 census records that there were 11 live children born to the marriage of Henry Roberts and Margaret Jones, but only 9 of these children have been positively identified.

I also put in the note the gaps in the sequence of children in the family where it's possible these 'missing' children might have been born. (Note: this isn't totally foolproof, as it doesn't allow for the possibility of twins where only one of them survived.)


Posted 2012-10-13T12:06:29.037


I particularly like the approach of commenting on the child count. In a classic genealogical narrative (as with NGSQ or Register), there is a "child list introduction." This statement reads along the lines of, "Children of ... " Many of mine read, There were possibly XX children born to XX and XX, information about XX is known, as follows:" – GeneJ – 2012-10-13T21:19:05.103


As long as you record the information in a manner which means you'll go back to it later then it doesn't really matter:

  • You could create a new person with the limited information you have (as suggested by ColeValleyGirl)

  • Alternatively, you could add a note to the mother's entry to indicate the information. Then when you find further corroborating evidence to create a new person, you can relate it.

I think I'd go with the first option, unless it was a simple as knowing a child existed with little other information.


Posted 2012-10-13T12:06:29.037

Reputation: 1 129

"You'll go back and ..." But how many folks actually do that? – GeneJ – 2012-10-13T21:13:42.613

Also, your tree may be next worked on by a descendant/relative other than you so using a widely accepted and hopefully documented convention should help them understand your work more easily. – PolyGeo – 2012-10-13T23:03:06.997

Practically speaking, if this is a family that is key to your pedigree, a family that includes direct ancestors, you will go back to it to over and over in your research, always trying to flesh it out further. I don't think it will matter how you record the unknown children. If this is just some ancillary family, very distant from your pedigree families, there may be very little chance you'll get back to it again. So it still doesn't seem to matter a whole lot how you record the information. – Tom Wetmore – 2012-10-14T19:18:53.787

@GeneJ: all the time! Whenever when I come across new information (especially something like newly released/digitized/indexed census or b/m/d records that have a lot of data) I try to see which gaps it can help me fill in. – bstpierre – 2012-10-16T14:55:44.497

@bstpierre We are indeed of a common spirit, but there is a lot of "set it and forget it." – GeneJ – 2012-10-16T17:03:13.267


My practice is to enter persons in my database when I have significant evidence about them. This includes anonymous (including just surname) persons when the evidence does not provide a name, but does supply something else significant (dates, places, spouses, ...).

If you follow this practice it is up to you to decide whether counts of numbers of living and dead children on a census record provides enough evidence to create person records. You do have significant information -- a died before date and a mother (but not necessarily a surname). In this case I usually do not add person records; rather I add a note to the mother with the information.

I believe this is another of those questions where there is no right answer. If your software allows anonymous persons, and makes it easy to search for them and display them, I don't think you can go wrong adding them.

Tom Wetmore

Posted 2012-10-13T12:06:29.037

Reputation: 3 152

To Tom's statement about "no right answer," I would add that over time, I imagine there is little consistency to how we approach this. – GeneJ – 2012-10-13T21:14:50.850

Tom you note "but not necessarily a surname". Would you not accept that since the number derives from a census question about children born "to this marriage", the assumption that the surname will be the same as the siblings can be justified (until there is evidence to the contrary)? – Fortiter – 2012-10-14T11:53:11.773

Fortiter, The census records I've seen with this data say children of the mother not children of the family. If the record is of the latter type, though, and there is a husband/father/head also in the record, I would indeed assume the unnamed children are siblings of the named children. Could of course be wrong, but genealogy is a strictly stochastic enterprise and we must admit that from the get go. – Tom Wetmore – 2012-10-14T13:22:54.563

Tom, I have added the image to show that the specification is clear about children of the marriage not just of the mother. – Fortiter – 2012-10-16T06:47:12.440