A last name at birth (or LNAB) is the surname given to a child when they’re born and the culture you’re born into usually determines the name. In the US, England, and many places formerly colonized by England, your LNAB is usually your father’s surname even if your parents were not married at the time of your birth. In places formerly colonized by Spain, people generally have multiple surnames: one from their mother and one from their father. Puerto Ricans, for example, give children a first name + a middle name + the first surname of their father + the first surname of their mother. I’m going to be specifically writing about people named according to US convention, but the tips can also be applied to most “Commonwealth” countries.
If you just want the list of possible sources for someone’s LNAB, click here.
I usually have no idea what a person’s mother’s LNAB is when I first start out because I usually research people born before 1930 in the southern US. The earlier they were born, the more difficult it is to find the information. Before about 1920 many locations in the southern US didn’t create birth or death records and didn’t record the names of the parents on marriage records.
Sometimes you get lucky and there is a relative of the person living with the family in a census record. If it’s their father or a brother that’s easy. If it’s their mother you have to be careful to make sure she didn’t remarry. If it’s a sister you have to check to see if she’s single or not (though it’s possible the sister changed her name back to her LNAB after a particularly bad marriage).
After searching for census records, I search for the person’s death record (it’s not guaranteed to list the parents because it depends on the informant’s knowledge) followed by a U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index record (it usually lists the parents but can only be found on Ancestry or MyHeritage) and then search for an obituary. If I don’t have any success with either of those, I turn to records for the person’s children: the death record, the U.S. SSA Claims record, a marriage record. Sometimes there will be a birth record (Virginia and South Carolina in particular) or a christening record (Texas has a lot of these).
These tips can also be applied to those assigned male at birth. I’ve run into two instances so far when the LNAB of a male wasn’t clear. One example: I was creating the profile of a man on WikiTree based on his FindAGrave profile that read “Liddell Sanders”. When I did some research on him to find at least one other record, I discovered his obituary. It also used the name Liddell Sanders, but it listed his parents as Sonny Ashmore and Liddell S. Williams. I found a third record from the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index on Ancestry and discovered that his mother’s LNAB was Sanders. It also recorded (male) Liddell’s actual LNAB as Ashmore. Liddell Ashmore changed his surname to Sanders sometime after he came of age but before he married.
Here is a list of sources that may record a LNAB in order of ease of access. Whether or not any of these types of records actually exist depends on the era the person you’re researching lived in and where they lived. FamilySearch offers free access (though some collections are only available to access from a Family History Library or Affiliate Library). Ancestry and MyHeritage require a paid subscription to access most records. Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank require a paid subscription for all access unless you can use a free trial. Check your local library to see if they subscribe to a genealogical records website. Here in Michigan, I can obtain access to MyHeritage and other databases remotely through the Library of Michigan.
- Census records. Sometimes a male sibling, single female sibling, or the person’s father is living with their family. Their mother could also provide the LNAB, but she could have remarried so be mindful of that.
- Marriage records. It varies widely in the US by location and time period, but the names of the bride and groom’s parents can sometimes be found on marriage records. Caution: the surname of the bride on the record may not be their LNAB because they could have been previously married.
- A national death index. U.S. Social Security Death Index records don’t list parents.
- Their memorial. FindAGrave and BillionGraves both provide free access to memorials. Sometimes the memorial page will have a photograph of the actual plot and/or the person’s obituary (and the person’s LNAB).
- State/local death index. They don’t provide as much info as an actual death record, but they sometimes list parents.
- State/local death record. These aren’t guaranteed to have the information because sometimes the person giving the information for the record had no idea who the deceased’s parents were.
- Obituaries. You usually have to have a subscription somewhere to access the full-text of the obituary unless the person died after about 2005 (use a regular search engine in that case). The quality of the computer-generated summary varies. You don’t always need the obituary of the person, sometimes a sibling’s or parent’s works as well.
- Other national records. U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index records often lists parents but it can only be accessed via Ancestry or MyHeritage. (See note below.)
- Cemetery records.
- Birth index. They don’t provide as much info as an actual birth record, but they sometimes list parents.
- Birth record.
- Court and other legal records.
Note: FamilySearch has a collection (United States Social Security Numerical Identification Files) that includes U.S. SSA Claims information for people (and usually their parents’ names). It seems to be a new collection. I’ve only found one person in it whose SSA Claim record I also found on Ancestry. There wasn’t a result for this person’s sister who also had a SSA Claim record on Ancestry. The FamilySearch collection records include more info than the Ancestry ones such as previous residences.