Trace Your Family Forward

Trace Your Family Forward

Many of the same resources you use to research back in time also can help you research forward and find cousins.

Since the beginning of time, generations of genealogists have learned a basic rule of research: Start with yourself and work backward. Yet some brazen genealogists dare to flout this time-honored tenet. They’ll identify an ancestor and trace that person’s descendants—going so far as to look for living relatives. Imagine!

But wait. These same people report stellar genealogical successes with such unorthodox methods. Professional genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak is one of them—she endorses researching forward in time as a way to:

  • get new genealogy details that didn’t make it to your branch of the family tree
  • find oral history subjects
  • collaborate on a family history Web site or book
  • recruit participants for a DNA surname study
  • build a family reunion attendee list
  • reunite an orphaned photo or heirloom with its family
  • add to your family photo collection
  • reconnect family branches that got separated over the years

There’s even a name for what Smolenyak and her ilk are doing: reverse genealogy. Many of the same resources you use to research back in time also can help you research forward.

Census Databases
Searchable indexes to federal censuses from 1790 through 1930 are handy for tracing families’ movements and, in 1850 and later, learning children’s names. You’ll find databases on and HeritageQuest Online, which is free through many public libraries. The FamilySearch Record Search Pilot Site has free indexes to several censuses.

Internet Search Engines
Using a Web search engine is a relatively easy way to find people. Start by searching for an ancestor’s name (inside quotation marks; be sure to try it first-name-first and last-name-first) or a surname followed by family or genealogy, such as “Bellows family.” You may turn up Web sites, genealogy charts and images. Consult Google Your Family Tree by Daniel M. Lynch (FamilyLink) for more help finding family records online.

Search for papers by location at the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America Web site; some are digitized there, too. You’ll find searchable, digitized newspapers on subscription Web sites such as World Vital Records, GenealogyBank and (the latter two have editions you can access free through many libraries).

Online Directories
Search for living individuals by name and location in online phone books such as and Many of these sources are out of date, so you may have to try a few names to get success. Also, these sources give numbers for landlines, not cell phones. Don’t forget to search for people in social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, too.

People Locators
These sites index contemporary public records that contain names, ages and addresses. Usually, you can search and get limited information free, then pay for more details. Beware of errors such as incorrect maiden names and middle initials. Note, too, that it’s not unusual for two people in a community to have the same name. and Zabasearch are two to try.

Probate Records
Court documents related to a deceased person’s estate can help build a network of relatives. Use a reference such as Red Book, 3rd edition, edited by Alice E. Eichholz (Ancestry) to find where your ancestor’s county keeps probate records. Many are on Family History Library microfilm; run a Place search of the online catalog for the county and look for a probate heading. You can rent film through a <a href=”fhcs” target=”_blank”>Family History Center near you. For more help with probate research, see the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine.

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