41 Ideas to Find Your Roots

By David A. Fryxell Premium

You’ve vowed that this, yes, 2014, will be the year you finally get a handle on your toughest genealogy puzzles. But you’ve already tried all the spelling variations on your ancestors’ names that make sense (and quite a few that don’t). You’ve quizzed your older relatives until now when they see your name on caller ID, they pretend they aren’t home. You’ve subscribed to paid databases until your spouse threatens to cut up that credit card. How can you make this year the one when you turn frustration into family finds?

Try these 41 ideas for making 2014 your best genealogy year ever. Not every one may work for you, but somewhere in these suggestions is the strategy or tip you need to evade those roadblocks to your roots. Happy New Year and happy ancestor hunting. []

1. Follow an ancestor’s sibling.
Sometimes when you’re stuck, switching your research focus to a sibling of your target ancestor may give you a way around your roadblock. For example, in my wife’s family, I found a Paul Jones, age 19, in the household of his sister Mary and her husband in the 1850 US census. Because I didn’t know whether Mary had arrived from England under her maiden or married name, it was easier to search passenger lists for her brother. Sure enough, there he was reaching New York on Oct. 22, 1831, age 1, aboard the Barque Cyrus Butler. Odds are his sister, only two years older, was on the same vessel.

2. Try an extremely specific search.
To find not only the commonly named Mary Jones but her parents as well, I turned to another technique: I searched a single online database—’s New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957—with specific criteria (Barque Cyrus Butler, Oct. 22, 1831, last name Jones). I left one major search field blank: the first name. The whole clan of arriving Joneses, a dozen in all, soon popped up. I’d still have to sort them into families, but there was Mary Jones, age 3.

3. Make an educated guess—then prove it.
Two men on my list of Jones arrivals (Thomas, age 37, and James, age 31) were promising candidates for Mary and Paul’s father, with two possible mothers (Alice, 29, and Ellen, 28). Thomas was listed as a farmer and James as a coal miner, and I knew from later records that Mary’s husband would be a Pennsylvania coal miner. So I guessed James, and searched the database of English births and christenings. There, I soon found both Mary and brother Paul. And yes, their father was James—and now I matched Alice as their mother.

4. Look for witnesses.
If you don’t know the identities of siblings and other collateral kin to use as brick-wall workarounds, check the names of witnesses on the records you do have. Christenings, weddings, funeral papers and death certificates are all good sources for names to investigate. Researching witnesses can even help jump to a prior generation: An 1825 marriage record that named my ancestor Joel Stow as a bondsman also listed bondsman Abraham Stow, Jr. Odds are that both men were brothers of the groom and that their father was Abraham Stow, Sr.

5. Follow the immigrant chain.
Immigrant families didn’t always arrive in the United States at once, but came consecutively in a chain of arrivals. If you can find one “link” in the chain, it might give you the break you need to identify earlier and later immigrants from the same family, as well as their place of origin. I found my great-great-uncle Carl Aldo Ingelson on a Canadian passenger list, for example. Though Carl traveled alone, that also may be how his brother—my great-grandfather—came from Sweden, instead of through the US ports I’d been searching.

6. Double-down on location data.

“Where” is almost as important in genealogy as “when.” Once you have a specific location (Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, in the case of my wife’s Jones line), try that place with your target names in every possible online database or microfilm roll. Finding a marriage record for a name as common as James Jones, with an equally common wife’s name, Alice, and only a guess at a date range, seemed tough. Adding a place name to my search of’s English marriages database, though, took me straight to James Jones and Alice Hollingworth, who married Jan. 16, 1823.

7. Check all the family plots.
The free Find A Grave site which was recently acquired by, lets you find families that were buried together. Once you’ve found one final resting place, search that cemetery for everyone with that last name. Census records can then help you figure out who’s who and who simply married into the family (and their family plot).

8. Consider remarriages.
What happened to James Jones and Alice Hollingworth after they arrived in America? I could trace daughter Mary, but James and Alice vanished—except for a possible “Mrs. Jones” in the 1840 census. I finally solved the mystery thanks to another of Mary’s brothers, Samuel Jones, who was living with her family in 1860. I found Samuel and two other Jones children in the 1850 household of Joseph and Alice Jefferson. Alice matched exactly (born 1802, England), and the children fit with the ages of the widowed Mrs. Jones’ 1840 household. When a female ancestor vanishes, consider she may be hiding in plain sight, remarried!

9. Match the census columns.
Censuses before 1850, with only heads of household listed by name, can be frustrating. But you can still use them as clues if you try matching genders and ages to the numbers in each column. With the 1840 Mrs. Jones, I could align Alice (age 38) with the one female age 30 to 40, daughter Mary (12) with the one female 10 to 15 and daughter Hannah (7) with the one female age 5 to 10. Two boys matched up, too, leaving one as-yet-unknown son and a mystery 20-to-30-year-old (brother? boarder?).

10. Use birthplaces like a map.
John Bradbury, husband of Mary Jones, moved his family from Pennsylvania to Illinois—but I had a 10-year census gap between those states. The birthplaces of his children in the 1870 enumeration narrowed that to a two-year span: John Jr., age 9, was born in Pennsylvania, but Sarah, 7, in Illinois, putting the move between 1861 and 1863.

11. Look for somebody who’s not there.
I had several candidates for the parents of John Bradbury back in England, because I wasn’t sure where in England to look. He had to be in America by 1846, when his daughter Elizabeth was born in Pennsylvania. So I eliminated parental candidates by seeking them in the 1851 English census: If son John was still living with them then, this had to be the “wrong” John Bradbury and hence not the right parents.

12. Forget (temporarily) the maiden name.
Genealogists are so wedded (sorry) to the importance of a female ancestor’s maiden name that it’s easy to forget that she probably didn’t use her birth surname for much of her life. Remember to search using a woman’s married name if you’re looking for her death or burial record, or if you’re trying to find a widow.

13. Search siblings with different surnames.
Immigrant siblings didn’t always stick with the same last name after arriving in America. Though my great-great-uncle was an Ingelson, his brother (my ancestor) was a Lundeen. The same family, inexplicably, has another brother surnamed Blomberg. Their homeland’s shift away from patronymic naming traditions explains part of the mismatch, as does the desire to “Americanize.” In any case, it’s worth rethinking your research with the possibility that siblings may not be similarly surnamed.

14. Un-Americanize the surname.

Sometimes to find ancestors in the “old country,” you need to un-Americanize their last name and guess what it was originally. If you have kin named Toliver and you can’t trace that English-sounding name back across the Atlantic, consider that it might originally have been Taliaferro, from Italy. You might not guess that your Irish-sounding Shane family came from Germany, where the name was Schön. Web searches for the name in America plus “surname origin” or Americanized might suggest an original version.

15. Try naming patterns.
First names can provide clues to people in previous generations, if your family followed the naming tradition common to their ethnic heritage. In the British Isles, for example, the first son was named after the father’s father; the second son after the mother’s father; the third son after the father; and the fourth son after the father’s eldest brother. For patterns common in other ethnicities, see our guide in the January 2012 Family Tree Magazine.

16. Check state censuses.
Often overlooked in favor of the invaluable decennial federal enumerations, state censuses frequently fell in the intervening years, enabling you to find ancestors who’ve “vanished” (and to substitute for the missing 1890 federal headcount). Other censuses may have taken place prior to statehood, or after statehood but before the decennial federal census. Find state censuses on Family­, and state-specific sites.

17. Detour around the 1890 gap.
It’s easy to lose ancestors in the black hole of that lost 1890 US census. But there are other ways around the problem, notably the special 1890 enumeration of Union Civil War veterans and their widows, much of which survived the fire (states alphabetically beginning with Kentucky, half of which burned). You can access the veterans census on and microfilm. A handful of non-veterans schedules survived, as well, and you might find family in these fragments; look online at

18. Consult city directories.
Also useful as an 1890 census substitute, city directories can deliver more information than you might think. An 1885 entry in the Moline/Rock Island, Ill., directory for “Mrs. Eckstrom, widow” was the key to unlocking an entire branch of my father’s family. Her son Oliver was listed at the same address in the 1891 directory, leading me to Oliver’s subsequent 1926 obituary and a bunch of essential answers. Without those directories, found on, I would have lost the family in the 1890 census gap. See a guide to finding and using city directories in the January 2012 Family Tree Magazine.

19. Ask the courthouse about military discharges.
Another record collection tragically lost to fire: the 16 to 18 million military records burned in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. A majority of post-WWI, pre-Vietnam, Army and Air Force service records were destroyed. But your veteran ancestor may have filed his discharge paperwork at the local county courthouse, where you can look for some of the information otherwise lost to the blaze.

20. Solve naturalization mysteries.
Prior to 1906, newcomers to the United States could file their naturalization documents in any courthouse, so expand your geographic “net.” Even if your ancestors didn’t live in Chicago, for instance, they might have filed at the Cook County courthouse and be among the 400,000 naturalization records searchable online. Nationwide, for post-1906 paperwork, you can order an index search and actual records at (Forget about looking for most female ancestors before 1922, though—wives automatically were naturalized when their husbands became citizens.)

21. Map your ancestors’ neighbors.
The land records and plats online at the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records site; let you not only find your ancestors’ lands but also their neighbors. Why should you care about the neighbors? They just might be your missing ancestors, because families often intermarried within tight geographic areas. The reference center on the GLO website can give you all the how-to you need.

22. Jump into a surname study.
By comparing your DNA test results to those of people who share your surname, you can learn much more than what would otherwise be revealed with standard testing. If you don’t go with the same DNA testing company used by the surname study, make sure the firm you use tests the same genetic markers.

23. Try autosomal DNA testing.
Unlike standard DNA tests that provide information on only your paternal or maternal lines, autosomal chromosomes represent both groups of contributors to your DNA. It helps to also have a genetic cousin get tested; then you can identify shared ancestors by comparing results. Or AncestryDNA’s new autosomal testing will match your results against those of other members. For a complete guide to this new generation of testing, see the December 2011 Family Tree Magazine

24. Find great-grandpa in the news.
Newspapers, which are increasingly being digitized and made searchable, can contain not only facts about your family but the stories behind their lives. But searching online collections can be overwhelming. Start by zooming in on periodicals from ancestral hometowns. If a site supports proximity searching (phrases or names near each other) or wildcards, try those searches to get around optical character recognition (OCR) transcription errors.

25. Attach an ancestor to an uncommon name.
Tracing the Roberts, Marys, Anns and Johns in your family tree can be a nightmare, especially if their surnames are equally common. So identify a relative with an oddball first name who might’ve lived with or near your ancestor, and search instead for Sophianesba, Ind., Littleberry or Marcus Crassius (all inhabitants of my Dickinson family tree).

26. Join a surname mailing list or forum.
Another approach to name dilemmas is to enlist the help of others sharing your ancestors’ surname. You likely won’t be related to everyone in the Bradbury email list or forum, but others just might be your distant kin who’ve already solved the puzzles that are stumping you. (At a minimum, such knowledge-sharing can help you eliminate possibilities and wrong turns.) Find all the surnames of interest, including spelling variants (“Bradberry”), among the 8,000 in Rootsweb’s mailing lists. You also can search surname forums on Rootsweb message boards and Gen­Forum.

27. Join a geographic mailing list or forum.
Geography-based lists and forums, especially those at the county level, can be even more fruitful than connecting with people looking for the same surname. After all, places are where the records are kept! Many participants in these groups live in or near the locales, too, or at least are familiar with the history and records there. Try Rootsweb and GenForum for forums grouped by state, and search <rootsweb</rootsweb for county email lists and their archives.

28. Find a wife in military records.
You might not think to look for female ancestors in records of the historically male-dominated military, but military pensions can solve many a missing-wife mystery. Widows of Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers had to supply proof of their marriage to qualify for a pension—information that typically included the maiden name. Find digitized pension records on sites such as or order paper copies from the National Archive.

29. Go earlier for marriage records.
Another way around wedding roadblocks is to dispense with the notion that only today do folks get the marriage/baby equation the other way around. If you’ve been (quite logically) looking for marriage records only before the birthdate of an ancestor’s oldest offspring, expand your search to a few years afterward.

30. Consider kissing cousins.
One way in which marital bliss really did differ “back when” was a greater tolerance for marrying within your own gene pool—second and even first cousins often got hitched. You can apply this eye-opening idea in both directions: Look for an ancestor’s spouse within the nearly immediate family, on the one hand. On the other, explore the possibility that a spouse you’ve already identified could be a clue to hitherto unknown relatives.

31. Google for a family or local history.
The invaluable Google Books searches millions of titles, many of which can be read online—especially older books, like the family and local histories that can provide ancestor answers you need. ( and Internet Archive are other good sources of these.) Family histories are an obvious information source, but don’t overlook local histories, which once were common and often went into personal details. I found a history of Henry County, Ill., for example, that said local resident John Bradbury was born in England in 1823.

32. Call on WorldCat.
Can’t find a digitized local or family history book online? Use a newfangled tool to find a old-fashioned printed book: WorldCat, also available as an iPhone or Android app, searches more than 10,000 library collections worldwide. It lists results in the order of libraries nearest you, or you can try to borrow a book through interlibrary loan. Typing Fryxell genealogy, for example, turns up Genealogy of the Fryxell and Lusty families (Moline, Illinois) by Paul A. Fryxell, available at the Denver Public Library.

33. Research forward for a change.
Genealogists are always advised to research one generation at a time, going backward in history. But sometimes it pays to reverse course and trace ancestors, especially collateral ones, forward in time. Finding their descendants can provide clues that you can then follow backward again. You also can connect with distant cousins alive today who can help answer your family-history questions.

34. Get to the church on time.
Church records often can fill in the blanks before vital records began, or where other records are missing. Get started with our church records toolkit. Not sure what church your ancestors attended? Consider geography (most people lived close to their church) and ethnicity (most Swedes were Lutheran, for example), and check newspapers to see where they or close kin were married or had funerals.

35. Go back to school.
Your best bet to find an early photo of an ancestor might be in a school yearbook, which also can locate that person in a particular place and time. Among sites with searchable collections of yearbooks and alumni directories are Mocavo, World Vital Records and Distant Cousin.

36. Take a second (or third) look.
New records are coming online or being made available at archives every day. Maybe the answer to your ancestor dilemma lies in a resource you’ve already checked: You might have come up empty the first time, a couple of years ago, but it’s worth revisiting. To use an extreme example, if you looked for an ancestor in back before that site’s explosion of (free) online databases, you need to go back and search again.

37. Search smarter.
When you revisit that site or run that search again, try searching smarter to improve your results. Depending on the site or search engine, you can enclose names and phrases in quotation marks, use wildcards (typically * and ?), add search terms with a plus sign (+genealogy) or omit them with a minus (-Ireland).

38. Google your favorite site.
Frustrated by the search limitations of a website you want to explore? You can often use Google (or Bing, if that’s your druthers) instead of the site’s built-in search capability. Simply add site: to your Google or Bing search to limit your results to the pages on that site, for example: Fryxell Suddenly the answers that have been lurking there all along will pop to the top.

39. Try pedigree files—or trash them.
You can always find clues to your family history in online pedigree databases, though of course these “facts” should be considered theories until proven. But you might also find yourself sandbagged by inaccurate information in such files. Go back through your tree and see if you’ve been predicating your research on an assumption from somebody else’s online tree. Try that line again, this time without those “facts.”

40. Rethink conflicting data.
On the other hand, you may be handicapping yourself by rejecting data (from your own research or others’) that doesn’t neatly fit what’s already in your family tree. For example, I’d found a woman and her children in the 1880 census who matched my Maria Eckstrom—but, inconveniently, she was married to a Belgian immigrant I’d never heard of, named Van Kirkhoon. After initially rejecting this find, I revisited it and found it fit, after all: The widowed Maria remarried, then took back her original married name after Mr. Van Kirkhoon also died.

41. Try again on this side of the Atlantic.

For most ethnic origins, it’s far easier to find essential facts such as the ancestor’s original parish by researching in US sources rather than “jumping the pond” too soon. If you’re stumped researching in your ancestral homeland’s records, try again over here. Church records, family Bibles, even newspapers (such as the “Information Wanted” ads placed by Irish immigrants in the Boston Pilot) can provide the details you need to make your overseas research more fruitful.
Tip: Check out our web guides at Family Tree Shop to learn tips and strategies to search smarter on sites such as,,, USGenWeb, GenealogyBank and more.
Tip: Google Books, and Internet Archive are good sources for digitized family and local histories. Search WorldCat and the Family History Library catalog for published or microfilmed versions.

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 From the January/February 2014 Family Tree Magazine