Out on a Limb: Not-So-Alien Encounters

By Allison Dolan Premium

Last December, the Family Tree Magazine staff visited the Anderson (Ohio) Senior Center genealogy group, one of many active family history organizations in our area. Though we’d gone to talk about ways to get organized, the conversation inevitably turned to UFOs—Unexplained Family Oddities.

You know what I’m talking about: Ancestors who defy all logical attempts to be traced. It’s as if they appeared out of thin air; were abducted by aliens, or as Phyllis, a member of the Anderson group, jokingly concluded about her forebear; “He was the second Immaculate Conception.”

I’ve recently been pondering a UFO, too. My great-great-grandfather Charles George Michael Hauck has revealed himself in every applicable US census—except 1880. In that enumeration, I’ve located a nearly matching family: Wife Carrie Hauck, a 22-year-old Kentucky native; her eponymous Ohio-born daughter; aged 22 months; and her 28-year old German immigrant husband, who fits my ancestor in every respect besides his first name: Herman. Based on my other research, I’m convinced this is the same family—but how do I explain Herman? Here are a few theories I’m working on:

• Michael finally followed his lifelong dream of joining a polka band on tour. In his absence, the family took in a member of the witness protection program.

• Just after Great-great-grandpa began a temporary stint as a Trappist, the census taker showed up when no one else was home. The vow of silence wouldn’t have posed a problem if Michael’s handwriting were legible to the enumerator; who—fearing his supervisor’s wrath—deciphered what he could, scribbled a fake first name for Grandpa, then disposed of the evidence.

• During a short-lived career as an investigative reporter, Michael went undercover in a peanut-smuggling ring. On census day, his cousin Herman was helping to set mousetraps, and the hard-of-hearing enumerator mistook “catching a mouse” for “head of the house.”

For genealogists, devising creative solutions to UFOs is an art form-one worthy of commendation, in our opinion. So in this issue’s installment of All in the Family, our new reader-participation section, we’re offering a reward to the readers who coin the most clever explanations for the unidentified family photo. Imagine you’d found this picture in your own collection, then put on your creative-thinking caps and send us your captions.

As our contest illustrates, it can be fun to invent tall tales about inexplicable characters or events in your family tree. But you don’t have to. The truth is out there; you just might need to try some unconventional sources and methods to find it.

That’s the crux of our cover story: We’ll show you how to approach your family history mysteries like a “CSI” investigator does. No, not with test tubes and petri dishes—by using seven forensics-inspired research techniques. We also examine other resources you can use to collect ancestral evidence, including financial records and our favorite online databases for foreign family history research.

So go ahead—put your genealogy research under the microscope. And if you still can’t explain those ancestral oddities, well, maybe the Immaculate Conception and alien-abduction theories aren’t so farfetched after all.

From the April 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.