Cracking Genealogy Cold Cases

Cracking Genealogy Cold Cases

Has your search for ancestors hit the deep freeze? Follow our suggestions to thaw out the trail.

Family history can be fickle. One day you’re in hot pursuit of Great-great-grandpa — cruising along the internet and collecting names, dates and places for your pedigree chart from one genealogical database after another. And the next day your online search results drop to zero. You encounter relatives who give you the cold shoulder. Your paper trail ices over. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the line. If the search for your ancestors has hit the deep freeze, follow our six steps and watch those brick walls melt away.

1. Keep track of time.
A timeline helps place your ancestor’s life in historical context. Enter each event in a person’s life so the series will be displayed chronologically. A good timeline should include:

  • event name
  • date or year
  • locality, displayed in reverse chronological order from death to birth. For example, to trace my maternal grandfather, John Figlar, back in time, I’d create a timeline listing the places he lived from death to birth: Duquesne, Pa., (place of death); Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Midway, Ohio; Fairpoint, Ohio; Podolínec, Czechoslovakia; Osturna, Hungary (place of birth). This helps you list potential records to look for in specific places.
  • age of the individual at the time of the event
  • source citation for the resource from which you found out about the event
  • transcription of event-related information from the source document

A timeline is an easy way to display migration (one year the relative is in this location; the next year, he’s moved to a different location), and can often provide a different perspective on a person’s life. It may also give you a clue to records you may not have searched. For example, between 1924 and 1931, my maternal grandparents lived in three different places in two different states: Midway, Ohio, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Duquesne, Pa. They had three children during that time period. By creating a timeline showing the dates and places and the birth years of the children, I could try to locate them in the 1930 census, search for the couple’s marriage application, and check for baptismal certificates for each of the three children.

Most genealogy software programs have timeline features already built in, or if you are a Microsoft Word user, download a free template at You can also use specialty software such as Genelines or Personal Historian, (free trial available) Investigate free online timeline generators, too, such as OurTimelines and Preceden

2. Make a map.
Dr. Waldo Tobler coined the First Law of Geography, which asserts: “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” It’s true of genealogy, too.

“When you take into account the relative lack of mobility before the introduction of the steam train and the automobile, or where physical geography hindered mobility, or where geography and culture intersect, the ‘where’ dimension often becomes the dominant dimension in your family tree,” says Bernie Gracy Jr., founder of This online program interfaces with Google Earth to help you do “location-based genealogy.” You can use maps to:

  • identify an ancestor’s migration trail
  • track where key life events occurred
  • plot out locations of neighbors and other key people “allied” with your family

Be sure to search detailed maps of the areas as they now exist, as well as historical maps published during your ancestors’ lifetimes. You may note differences between present-day maps and historical ones: Street names change. Villages and small towns become incorporated, change names or dissolve. County lines are changed, or a county dissolves and the land becomes absorbed by new counties.

Fortunately, plenty of online tools can help genealogists map all the locations in the life of an ancestor or family. Try Google Earth and Earth Point Tools for Google Earth Other options include MapQuest, Multimap and Bing maps Microsoft’s Mapcruncher lets you meld together maps and photographs for free.

The American Memory project at the Library of Congress, available at, has an interesting collection of maps including those from the Civil War, railroad maps from 1828 to 1900, and panoramic maps from 1847 to 1929 (searchable by subject or geographic location). The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection has an extensive collection of current and historical maps covering locales both in the United States and abroad. Check Cyndi’s List for other online maps, gazetteers, and geographical information.

Popular genealogy programs such as Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic include updated mapping features and GPS support. Other programs, such as Family Atlas ) and the web-based Ancestral Atlas, have virtual pushpins so you can mark the places an ancestor lived. You also can find and interact with others who are researching the same locations, allowing for a collaborative approach that may give you answers you couldn’t find on your own. Subscription service Historic Map Works (also available through some libraries) lets you search historical maps by modern address or geographic coordinates.

3. Follow the finances.
Money has always played a critical role in where and how people live. Whether your ancestor was independently wealthy or working class, you should be able to trace him based on how he earned his living. If he owned property, paid taxes or left an inheritance, there should be a record. Start at the local courthouse, county records office, town clerk or register of deeds for records of land transactions. The Family History Library (FHL) may have microfilmed records for the time period; run a place search of the online catalog on the county or town name to find out. If a relative received land from the US government, search the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office records site

Historical newspapers can also offer insight about who had money — and who didn’t. Check society pages, obituaries listing next of kin (and potential heirs), and other sections such as legal notices, which may list the names of those with liens, debts, warrants, etc. If your ancestor found himself on the wrong side of the law, you’re likely to find a criminal court docket.

Look for microfilmed copies of old newspapers in the local public or university library where your ancestor lived, online through the Library of Congress’ free Chronicling America, or on Google’s News Archive (which contains both free and fee-based content) You can also search for newspapers using subscription services such as Genealogy­Bank or . For additional resources, see

4. Check the cluster.
Immigrants typically put down roots near others from their same ancestral town or village. Perhaps your ancestor traveled with family members or others they knew from the old country. Tap into those folks’ immigration records to see what they might tell you. Try searching the databases of Ellis Island or Castle Garden for names of friends and family members, then browsing the list for your family. Or use Steve Morse’s One-Step Gold Form to search by town name to find immigrants coming from a particular town or village.

Where to find friends and family? Check the witnesses’ names on baptismal or marriage records, naturalization petitions and other documents. If you’re able to find your ancestors in one of the US censuses, take a look at who’s living next door, down the street and around the block. Look for clues in photographs, too. I never knew that my mother’s family was acquainted with my father’s family before my parents married. But, it turns out my paternal grandparents were neighbors of my maternal grandmother’s sister, and my grandfather even served as a pallbearer for my great-aunt’s husband after a steel mill accident in 1921.

5. Do the DNA.
When a paper trail ends, or when the possibility of adoption, questionable paternity or illegitimate birth arises, many genealogists turn to DNA testing to prove or disprove relationships.

If you can get the cooperation of the person to whom you suspect you’re related — and can find male-line descendants to test — a Y-DNA test can help you determine whether a relationship exists (see the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine for detailed information on DNA tests). The Family Finder Test, available through Family Tree DNA, uses autosomal DNA, so you can take it whether you’re male or female. You can potentially match with five generations of family, and can even can test “suspected relatives” including aunts, uncles, parents, half siblings or cousins.

Joining a Y-DNA surname study, which tests individuals with the same or similar surname to find relationships, also is a good way to make connections. Two places to find studies are Family Tree DNA and 23andMe Or you can track down other projects by searching DNA Groups, the Surname DNA Studies and Projects on Cyndi’s List, and DNA Heritage Surname Projects Read more about surname studies in the September 2010 Family Tree Magazine

6. Go forward instead of back.
Often, applying the technique of “reverse genealogy” — working forward in time to find distant relatives — can help you over family history hurdles. One easy trick you can try is searching online telephone directories such as and people search sites such as Pipl or Zabasearch Try Google searches, too. Searching Facebook by surname and place is another option — when you find someone you think is a relative, send a friend request explaining the possible relationship. You also can search for Facebook groups of people with your surname. See the box on page 20 for tips on leaving “virtual breadcrumbs” online so potential relatives can easily find you. For more help, read the article “Undercover Genealogy” in the July 2010 Family Tree Magazine

Sure, there are times when your quest for family facts suffers a cold spell. But don’t let those hard-to-find ancestors leave you in a permanent winter of discontent. Applying our search strategies and tapping into technology is sure to increase your chances of obtaining a frost-free family tree.

Virtual Breadcrumbs

Tip: Research the names of witnesses on baptismal or marriage records, naturalization petitions and other documents. These people were family, neighbors or friends of your ancestor, and their lives may give you clues about your ancestor’s life.

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From the March 2011 Family Tree Magazine

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