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Who's Your Daddy?

Genealogy Essays:

Recording Adoptions
How do you draw adopted children in a family tree? (2011)

Those Elusive Edes
9 lessons learned about finding people in the census. (2009)

The Joys of Inveterate Button Pushing (2004)

Who's Your Daddy?
Genealogy versus family history. (2004)

Suspicion Meters
Your program doesn't have one, but you do. (2004)

Estimating Dates (2002)

A cautionary tale (2002)

Count Your Blessings
1988 and now (2002)

The Grand Chase
How my individuals connect (2002)

What makes a family? (2001)

A genalogical detective story (2000)

Eben J. Cady
Musing about a tombstone (2000)

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Main Genealogy Page
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Intermediate Genealogy
Biography questions

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(The first part of this article appeared in RootsWeb Review, 8 September 2004.)

Recently a reader wrote about a father who abandoned his wife and child. A kind, loving man married the mom, taught the child to walk tall, shoot straight, work hard and speak the truth. All was well until the old debate of genealogy versus family history reared its ugly head. The question of "Who's your daddy?" causes more debate among us genealogists than any other question.
(See below for the arguments on both sides).

We know who helped that girl learn to ride a two-wheeler, who took her out for ice cream when she made the honor roll and who is going to walk her down the aisle when she marries. Who, however, do you put in that little box labeled "Father" in your genealogy program?

Take a calm, soothing breath, folks, and remember -- for most of us it's only a hobby. Bird watching is a hobby too. It gets you out of doors, you meet nice people and it's a great excuse for a walk. I took my son birding with the Audubon society one Saturday when he was eight. I made him a blank form to record his sightings. He wanted to write down a squirrel and a gopher snake. They were close (both vertebrates, after all), but not plumb, since we were neither mammal watching nor reptile watching. I let him do it; I figured he wasn't keeping to the exact rules of the game, but it wouldn't hurt anyone and he was having fun. I would have drawn the line if he wanted to report the squirrel as a new species of wingless bird, the furry gray warbler, to the Smithsonian.

Genealogy keeps you busy indoors, unless you walk cemeteries, and lets you meet nice people. It makes history come alive. So does family history. If the girl wants to have John Trueheart down as her father, out of bonds of love and shared lives, instead of Alonzo Q. Scumbucket, whose genes she carries, it doesn't hurt anyone. There are lines to be drawn here, too. The girl will have to put Alonzo down on her marriage license and Social Security application.

It would not be right to publish a genealogy for public use without making the distinction between biological and true father clear, with a note on both men and the daughter, but as long as it stays private, it isn't hurting anyone and makes a youngster happy.


Arguments for using the biological father:

  • Our little hobby is genealogy; you use the genetic father.

  • There is a slight chance you will lose valuable medical information if you ignore the biological father.

  • There is an even slighter chance the biological father has more offspring in the same town, and you wouldn't want the child to marry a sibling - or half-sibling - through ignorance.

Arguments for using the adopted father:

  • As the twig is bent so grows the tree, and the one who is there in the house, reading to him after dinner or teaching her how to ride a bicycle, will do most of the bending. The adoptive father is going to be the child's male role model, for better or worse.

  • Give credit where credit is due.

  • If the child calls him "Dad", that's what he is.


  • Rebuttal to "genealogy": Anyone who believes all 42 generations between Dad and Charlemagne has more faith than a tent full of people at a revival, with less foundation. Chances are anyone whose lines go back to 1600, let alone 782, has some non-biological parents there in the tree.

  • Rebuttal to "Twig": If a child never gets a decent man as an adoptive father, but he does get some decent male role models, do you throw in a priest, minister, rabbi, coach, high school math teacher? Should Father Flannigan of Boy's Town go down as the father of 4,000 kids? If the child is lost in the woods and raised by wolves, would you record them as the parents?

This subject raises more heat than any other among genealogists, oddly enough. My opinion is that you should do what you want, and if you want to put the adoptive father in, go ahead. If someone tells you, in a shocked tone reserved for people who cheat at cards, that you are not doing real genealogy, you should smile, say "I know dear - I'm doing family history. Would you like some more tea?"

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This page updated: June 21, 2014