Question: I’d like to track down some second cousins who’ve fallen out of touch with my branch of the family. I don’t know even if they’re still alive. How can I find out and contact them if so?
Answer: Privacy restrictions on records can make tracing living family members more challenging than finding those who’ve been dead for centuries. Tools like vital records and the US census (available only through 1940) are out. Instead, try the Social Security Death Index for relatives who may have died as recently as 2014, as well as newspaper obituaries and sites like Find a Grave. If these searches lead you to believe your cousins are still living, Ancestry.com has public-records directories and phone directories that might help you find their location as recently as about 2002. Obituaries of the person’s parents could provide a female cousin’s married name along with residence clues.
Social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn could also help you find missing cousins, especially if their names aren’t too common and/or you have an idea of their locale. And of course you might get lucky by simply Googling your cousins.
You can also try a combined search of non-genealogy websites such as PeopleFinders and Whitepages. You’ll come across other similar sites when Googling names. All want you to pay for access to complete background reports, but you often can get the contact information you need for free. You can search PeopleFinders without a location, but you’ll get better results if you have an approximate age. If PeopleFinders pops up a likely cousin candidate, you can then use that location information to search Whitepages. Here, too, the site will try to direct you to paying for a “full report”—but don’t overlook the little link to View Free Details. This will often reveal a street address and phone number.
If you can puzzle out that a cousin is affiliated with a company, university or some other organization (via Google, say, or LinkedIn), you might be able to guess an email address. Check the organization’s public contact pages, such as for communications staff, to see the pattern used for emails. Follow it, plugging in your relative’s name: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, for example. Failing that, there’s no harm in simply guessing and sending the same email message to every name variation you can think of. The wrong ones will just bounce.
Of course, it’s up to your cousins whether they want to connect. If you have a phone number, you could try calling out of the blue, but you might be met with suspicion in this era of telemarketers. A quick email explaining how you think you’re related can work; try a subject line like “Smith family genealogy.” Or you might send an old-fashioned letter, explaining whom you are and why you want to connect. Enclose a printout from your family tree software to show how you and the cousin are related and help show this isn’t a scam.
From the December 2017 issue of Family Tree Magazine.