We all have them. They make our brains hurt, compel us to curse at our computers and sometimes even lead us to question why we got into genealogy in the first place. We’re talking about problem ancestors, of course: The great-great-grandmother whose surname you can’t identify. The surprise sibling on Grandpa’s family group sheet. The “missing” cousin who seems to have left no paper trail. That certain uncle whose name causes your relatives to clam up.
Before you relegate those perplexing progenitors to your cold case files, consider this: Although each pedigree problem has its own particulars, brick-wall ancestors tend to fall into common categoriessuch as the five familiar characters described here. Match your elusive kin to these profiles, then follow our tried-and-true strategies to draw them out of hiding.
Black Sheep Bill
He’s the relative nobody wants to talk about and causes the biggest stir amongst your kin. Due to his outcast status, you won’t get much information from family membersinstead, you’ll need to find other sources to dig up the dirt.
Tap targeted resources.
Some family historians celebrate rather than shun their black sheep ancestors. As a result, there’s no shortage of resources for tracing specific types of notorious kin, from madams to murderers. For example, the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches <www.adeaw.us> documents Colonial-era Americans who were accused of witchcraft. Jana Broglin’s Hookers, Crooks, and Kooks series (Heritage Books, Volume 1 $22, Volume 2 $21) rounds up the colorful charactersprostitutes, ladies of the evening, gypsies, thieves, vagrants, phrenologistsliving in the United States in 1880, as identified by their occupations in that year’s federal census. The International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists
provides research and moral support to family historians whose ancestors committed any of a long list of misdeeds, including kidnapping, armed robbery, treason, theft, even “extreme public embarrassment.”
Spread the news.
If your ancestor had a questionable past or committed some dastardly deed, chances are he made the news. Historical newspapers are terrific sources for finding out about the crimes, scandals and gossip of the day. You’ll find them online through Ancestry.com
and other subscription Web sites; get microfilmed newspapers at the library.
Hit the courthouse. Court records can often shed light on an ancestor’s wrongdoings. Many of these records haven’t been microfilmed or digitized, so you’ll likely have to research on site or send a request by mail. But published indexes and abstracts can help; see the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine for further court-records guidance.
Go to jail. If your kin committed a crime, you might be able to follow his criminal past through prison records. The availability and location of records depends on the institution where your ancestor was incarcerated: county jail, state penitentiary or federal prison, for example. If the prison still exists, you can contact the prison’s historian to ask about access to its archival records.
Call the FBI.
Since 1908, The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has kept files on millions of Americans. Check Footnote
(subscription required) for some digitized FBI files, as well as Unlocking the Files of the FBI by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart (SR Books, $72). For more help researching skeletons in your family’s closet, see the November 2008 Family Tree Magazine
He’s a brick wall from the very beginning. You have a few spotty details and some family lore, but you can’t find a paper trail. Because you can’t confirm his existence, you swear he beamed down from another planet.
Separate fact from fiction. First, carefully examine the family lore about your ancestor. People often stretch the truth, and tales change as they’re passed down in the family. Your task is to weigh the stories you’ve heard against the evidence.
I had to do this with my great-grandfather. According to family folklore, his name was Michael Finch, and he was a boot maker from Liverpool, England. But this legend turned out to be a dead end. Through research in passenger lists on Ancestry.com
and microfilmed Hungarian baptismal and marriage certificates from the Family History Library (FHL)
, I discovered Michael Finch was actually Mihaly Fenscak, a boot maker from Posa, Hungary (now in Slovakia), who’d emigrated through Liverpool but hadn’t lived there. Apparently, Mihaly’s story was told to an elderly cousin, and then altered just enough to send me off in the wrong direction.
Immigrants in particular are prone to morphed and erroneous details, so be sure to take oral tradition with a grain of salt. If you can’t find an ancestor based on “facts” supplied by relatives, throw out your assumptions and try a different path.
Ferret out errors. As in the case of my great-grandfather, many brick walls are built from incorrect or imprecise data. Transcription errors often sneak into published sources, and even original records sometimes contain misinformation (which might be purposeful or accidental). A good rule of thumb: Try to find at least three records to verify any facts you already know and judge the quality of your data based on the weight of the evidence you accumulate.
Look at the bigger picture. Learning about local, national and world events can help you uncover cause-and-effect factors that might’ve influenced your elusive ancestor’s circumstances and behavior. For example, I learned that my paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States before his 17th birthday in part to avoid his required three-year service in the Austro-Hungarian army.
In addition to newspapers and magazines from your ancestor’s time, look to local histories to learn about the milestones and social attitudes where he lived. You’ll find county and local histories in libraries and genealogical and historical societies. Online, you can search thousands of digitized histories for free at FamilySearch (click Search Records, then Historical Books) and HeritageQuest Online (access through member libraries). Ancestry.com
subscribers will find local histories in the Stories, Memories and Histories category.
You’ve pinpointed her in the 1910 and 1930 US censuses, but not 1920. Other facts you’ve uncovered don’t quite add up. You’ve located her cemetery plot, but her death record is nowhere to be found. You know she married and lived in New York, thenpoof!she shows up in Missouri.
Reconstruct the chronology.
When you find families disappearing between one census and the next, or you have conflicting data about where an ancestor lived, create a timeline. This lets you see your ancestors’ key life events at a glance and identify questions that will direct your research. Include your sources, too, so you can see which ones you’ve already usedand which ones are coming into conflict. That can help you resolve discrepancies. Click here
for instructions to create a timeline; download a free template
Review your research. Next, re-examine each record for missing clues. When recording or transcribing information, did you include only the facts you considered important at the time? You might’ve copied names and dates from that census record, but did you also note years of marriage and parents’ countries of origin? What about the clues listed on a passenger record, including the person’s final destination and/or her closest relative in the old country? Perhaps you misread a name or misinterpreted a relationship.
If you’re floundering in your search for a female ancestor, don’t rule out the possibility of multiple marriages and burial markers. If she was a widow, perhaps she was living with her children in the year you can’t find her in the census, or maybe she’s recorded under her maiden name. (See “Play the gender card,” below, for more strategies to research frustrating females.)
Search on different spellings. Transcription errors and misspellings are a common culprit in ancestral hide-and-seek, especially when you’re searching online census indexes. Here’s a trick to try if you know where an ancestor lived, but are striking out with basic searches: Type in the surname only and restrict by state, county, district or town as necessary to narrow the results down to a reasonable number for browsing. Entering just the given name instead of the surname might work if your ancestor has an unusual first name. Experiment with searching nicknames, middle names, initials and wildcards, too. (Wildcards use special symbols such as * or ? to substitute for characters at the end or in the middle of a word; for example, you might type mast* to find Masters and Masterson.)
For more on searching online census records and other popular databases, see the May 2007 Family Tree Magazine.
She’s the ancestor you can trace to a certain point, but then she totally disappears. She’s impossible to find in naturalization papers, marriage records or birth certificates.
Play the gender card. Female ancestors are sometimes trickier to track than their male counterparts because historically, men generated more records. But you can turn the tables by focusing on your mystery woman’s husband. His recordsespecially military pension applications, naturalizations, probate files, deeds, tax documents and willscould yield her maiden name and other details. If you’re dealing with an immigrant or foremother in the old country, be sure to factor in foreign spellings: In other languages, women’s names often carry a gender-specific suffix, as in -datter for Norwegians and Danes, -ova for Czechs and Slovaks, and -ska for Poles, Macedonians and Ukrainians. Look for these endings in online databases and microfilms.
For more female-friendly tips and records, read Christine Kassabian Schaefer’s The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women’s Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing Co., $39.95) and Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors (Betterway Books, out of print).
Expand your geography. If you can’t find your ancestor where she’s supposed to be, check surrounding towns and counties. Perhaps she didn’t move, but the boundaries did. Or her records may be with her town’s parent countyThe Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists edited by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack and Erin Nevius (Family Tree Books, $29.99) can help you sort out those geographic shifts.
Can’t find a couple’s marriage record? Women often wed in their hometowns, so look where the bride’s parents lived. No death record? Remember that death certificates were filed in the place of deathwhich isn’t necessarily the place of residence. Cemetery and funeral home records could provide clues. Perhaps your ancestor was cared for by one of her children or another relative in her final days. Search in the counties where out-of-town kin lived.
Follow family and friends. Your ancestors didn’t live in isolation. So try what Emily Anne Croom, author of Unpuzzling Your Past, 4th edition (Betterway Books, $19.99), calls “cluster genealogy”: Extend your research to siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, friends and neighborsall of whom might turn up as witnesses on records. Searchable online databases make it easy to scour the records of an entire state (or even country) at once, and to search on fields such as parents’ names and occupationsomething you can’t typically do using a traditional microfilm index.
The cluster approach helped me track my maternal grandmother’s sister, Anna Straka Urda. I first tried to find her in Allegheny County, Pa., where my grandmother had settled. No luck. But two of their brothers lived in a neighboring county, so I took a second look at the 1900 passenger list for one brother, Mike Straka, and saw that his final destination was Bradenville, Pa.home to his brother-in-law Andy Urda. Aha! I then tracked the Urdas in censuses and found Anna and Andy in a Westmoreland County, Pa., online marriage index
Skirt disasters. Remember how we talked about the importance of understanding the history your ancestors lived through? If you’ve tried other avenues and it seems as though your ancestor truly fell off the face of the earth, perhaps she was the victim of an accident, natural disaster or illness outbreak.
Such events took countless lives and usually made headlines (and history books), so it’s easy enough to begin investigating disasters that might’ve touched your family. A good resource to start with is GenDisasters
, a site that documents the “tornadoes, fires, floods, hurricanes, train wrecks, mine explosions and tragic accidents that became a part of history and our genealogy.”
You can dig deeper into your problem ancestor’s possible fate by consulting coroner recordswhenever unexplained deaths occurred, the coroner was called in. As with death certificates, the place where the person died has jurisdiction (see here
). To find records, first check the FHL catalog
for microfilm (do a place search for the locality and look under vital records) and use online tools such as the University of Pittsburgh Archive Services Center’s Coroner Case File Wiki
and Cuyahoga County Ohio Coroner Files 1833-1900
. Search Google
on the county and state plus “coroner case files”
or “coroner records”
to locate others. If you strike out through those avenues, contact the coroner’s office.
On the flip side, some disasters led to the demise not of your ancestor, but of her records: Wars, floods and those ubiquitous courthouse fires have done in plenty of pedigree paperwork. Destroyed documents don’t have to mean the end of the road for you, though. Look for duplicate records in other repositories, as well as substitute sources: A baptismal record or newspaper birth announcement could supply the same information as a birth certificate, for example. Think outside the box to determine alternate routes to pursue.
You’ve located family letters and an obituary that indicate he immigrated through New York. But you can’t find his passenger list on the Ellis Island Web site to prove it, so you’re convinced he swam across the Atlantic.
Get the name right. Many people don’t realize the US government’s preprinted passenger list forms were filled out at the port of departurenot when the immigrants arrived in America. In fact, US immigration officials merely confirmed the information on the forms; they didn’t record details about passengers (which is why those tales claiming “our ancestor’s name was changed at Ellis Island” are a myth).
That means your ancestors’ original name back in the old country is what will appear on the passenger list, and that’s what you need to search for in the online database (or in microfilmed records). If you’ve been typing Henry Smith and coming up empty, maybe you should be looking for Heinrich Schmidt instead.
Consider Castle Garden.
Ellis Island opened in 1892. If your ancestor arrived in New York before then, his passenger list won’t be among Ellis Island’s records. The precursor to that so-called “golden door” was Castle Garden
, and you can search an online database of arrivals from 1830 to 1892..
Unlike Ellis Island’s Web site, where you can see images of the actual passenger lists, CastleGarden.org is only an index: You’ll get details such as name, age, ship, arrival date and port of departure, but you have to go elsewhere to view the original records. Those passenger lists are on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
microfilm, which you can get through genealogical libraries, FHL branch Family History Centers (find locations here
) and NARA regional facilities. They’re also part of Ancestry.com’s subscriber-only immigration collection.
Pick a different port. You’re certain of the name, and you’ve struck out with both Ellis Island and Castle Garden. The next question to ask yourself: Are you looking in the right port? Sure, New York was the United States’ busiest immigration hubmore than 17 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924but it wasn’t the only port that processed arrivals. Perhaps your ancestor actually sailed through Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia or another city. NARA has microfilmed passenger lists from dozens of ports on all US shores, which you can get through genealogical libraries; they’re also on Ancestry.com.
Try an alternate tool.
As we’ve pointed out, indexes and even original records aren’t immune to errors. But if the online indexer transcribed your ancestor’s name wrong, don’t assume you’re sunkStephen P. Morse’s search tools
could be your lifeline. Morse has created forms for Ellis Island, Castle Garden and Ancestry.com
that let you search on parameters not offered on the host sites.
This approach helped me find the passenger list for my great-aunt Mary Fenscak. I’d incorrectly assumed she came through Ellis Island, but couldn’t find her, so I expanded my search to other ports. Using the Sounds Like search options for surname and birthplace, I typed in fenscak
and turned up a 1909 Baltimore passenger list for Maria Fenisak on Ancestry.com. (Note: You still have to be an Ancestry.com
subscriber to access results through Morse’s site.)
Cull clues from other sources. Still no luck? At this point, it’s time to toss out your assumptions and turn to other types of records for clues that might help redirect your search. Go back to federal censuses: 1900 (column 16), 1910 (column 15), 1920 (column 13) and 1930 (column 22) all provide the year of immigrationdo they match what you know?
If you can’t find your ancestor coming, perhaps you can find him going: Emigration lists from Hamburg, Germany, one of Europe’s busiest ports of departure, are available on FHL microfilm and on Ancestry.com. Lists from UK portsoften a stopover for ships that started out from other European citiescovering 1890 to 1960 are searchable on the paid-access Web site FindMyPast
. Unfortunately, most of the records from the top European port of embarkation, Bremen, Germany, were destroyed, but you’ll find a searchable database of the few surviving lists here
Naturalization documents can help too, especially the declaration of intention. Also referred to as “first papers,” the declaration often cites a specific immigration date and place of origin. Look for records on Footnote and through the FHL, and read a guide to naturalization records in the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine.
In other words, don’t just stand there when the front door to your research slams shut. Try the back doorit may open just enough to coax out your problem ancestors.
Five Surefire Solutions
These strategies will help you scale almost any brick wall:
1. Check in unlikely places.
Don’t limit your research to censuses, deeds, vital records and other standbys. Answers may be in overlooked sources such as church publications, ethnic newspapers and fraternal organization records. Find more in the May 2007 Family Tree Magazine.
2. Be open-minded.
Consider all possibilities for names, dates and places. Avoid erroneous assumptions based on family lore or other informationthat could be causing your rut. Question everything.
3. Take a second look.
Review your research documents for missed names of siblings and witnesses. Then put them aside and look at them again with fresh eyesyou never know what might jump out.
4. Believe in serendipity.
It’s amazing how often genealogical answers pop into people’s laps when they least expect it: The phone call from a distant cousin, the family Bible on eBay. Increase your chances of luck finding you by posting on message boards, contributing to online databases and joining societies in your ancestral stomping grounds.
5. Wait it out.
Don’t give up too easily: After all, isn’t the hunt half the fun of genealogy? Put that problem ancestor aside for a while to work on other lines. When you come back, perhaps a new resource or the perspective you’ve gained will help you bust through that brick wall.
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 to kick-start your search.
| Problem Ancestor Type
|| Suggested Sources
The proverbial skeleton in the closeta 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
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
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
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
- family interviews
- guardianships and
- orphans court records
- message boards and support groups
- newspaper adoption notices
- orphan train records
- orphanage records