Strategies for Finding Problem Ancestors

Strategies for Finding Problem Ancestors

Strategies for finding mysterious ancestors, such as black sheep, immigrants, drifters, adoptees and orphans.

At one time or another, we all run into certain ancestors who cause us genealogical grief. When you encounter one of these problematic people, use our cheat sheet of suggested sources to kick-start your search.

Black Sheep
The proverbial skeleton in the closet—a convict, outlaw, madam, pirate or other “colorful” character.

  • censuses (check occupation field)
  • coroner and funeral home records
  • court records
  • FBI, prison and institutional records
  • marriage and divorce records
  • message boards
  • newspapers and obituaries

Census evader
This individual or family makes an appearance in certain federal enumerations but not others.

  • city directories
  • Soundex indexes to 1880 and later censuses
  • state and territorial censuses
  • tax lists

Moves around more than a band of gypsies. Shows up in different states and localities; never seems to stay put for an extended period.

  • censuses (check birthplace fields)
  • city directories
  • deeds and land records
  • migration and boundary-change maps
  • social histories

Fleeting female
She might be the mother whose maiden name eludes you, or the daughter whose marriage you can’t pin down.

  • court records
  • convent records
  • marriage and divorce records
  • military pension files
  • naturalization papers
  • newspaper society pages
  • records of her husband and siblings

Mystery immigrant
Your missing link to the old country. You might know approximately when he came, but can’t retrace his journey or pinpoint his town of origin.

  • alien registrations
  • censuses (check birthplace and language fields)
  • church records
  • emigration lists
  • ethnic newspapers
  • naturalization papers
  • newspapers’ ship arrival notices
  • passenger arrival lists

Orphan or adoptee
Seemingly, the ultimate brick wall, since the parents’ identities may be unknown or purposely concealed.

  • amended or delayed birth certificates
  • apprenticeships
  • censuses
  • family interviews
  • guardianships and orphans court records
  • message boards and support groups
  • newspaper adoption notices
  • orphan train records
  • orphanage records

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