Yesterday, I taught a class on 20th and 21st century research at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh and it made me think more about the path we take. Finding living cousins who may share family genealogy information with us is a task most genealogists undertake. At times, we need to hire professional genealogists in distant places to help with the search. For most of us, this is not a quick task, but the hunt is satisfying and often habit-forming!
Some research into families can take many years and may involve a sizeable investment of time and money. Determining a currently living descendant of an ancestor involves many layers of research. It can mean looking at a person on a census record that you believe is your ancestor or perhaps an ancestor’s sibling and trying to trace that person forward in time to see if he or she connects to people that you do know about. What if you are not sure of any of the other family members as happens with many people? Contrary to the belief of many newer researchers, older records and especially those into the 20th and 21st century are not all online. I have seen estimates of 10-20% online availability of records. We look at subscription databases, free databases compiled by volunteers, websites of historical societies, public libraries, county and state archives, and the websites of possible counties where the family resided.
Let’s say you find the probable ancestor on a 1910 federal census in one state. You see the name of A. C. Stuart, age 25. You then try to locate that person on the 1920, 1930, and 1940 federal censuses. A few are easy to locate, others have a variety of spellings of the surname on each census or may have moved from state to state. Because the 1940 census is currently the most recently federal census open to researchers, we then utilize other resources. A few states have easily available birth and death indexes, but for some may only be open for research until the 1920s or 1930s. Online newspaper indexes and digitized images of some are only a small percentage of historical newspapers, even for many recent years. A search for that person in the various newspaper database yields nothing that fits the person. Then we backtrack to the census and look for children of the target person. That person has two daughters. By the 1930 census, neither of them are listed with their parents. We look at various websites for marriages and possibly find one of the daughters. This Mary Stuart married a John Smith. Do you know how many people have these same names! An unusual middle name or middle name initial might help to sort out the correct persons. This is not a common occurrence. Did your original target person’s spouse die young, old, remarry, divorce, move far away, or something else and we cannot find them. Did that person (and other family members) leave their Midwestern home and move to the west coast or become what we often call a “snow-bird?”
Still no helpful details are emerging so we go back to the 1910 census and analyze it further. It says our target person was born three states away from the current state of residence. Maybe we need to start looking at the birth family of our target person. We need to see if that family moved to the new residence area also. No luck in the 1910 or 1920 census with that, so was start backtracking again. We try to find the target person on the 1900 or 1880 census. Only a few fragments of the 1890 federal census still exist so that’s no help. We find the target person with their birth family. Then we see that someone has posted an online family tree about this family, but unfortunately has little information on our target person. However, there are death dates and places listed for the target person’s parents and one sibling. Now we have to look at them but the person who posted the family tree does not have supporting evidence for the dates and places. We take a chance and look online for an obituary for the parents and find a short obituary for one of the parents. That’s exciting until we read it and it says survived by three sons, two daughters, and five grandchildren. No names are listed! Perhaps we are fortunate and that obituary does list the names and even states of residence for some. More to follow and at the same time, we do still work on the target person directly. You contact a fellow researcher in the areas noted on the censuses. One knows someone who has access to a library in-house index to newspapers. You contact that other person and luckily that person finds a reference to your target person moving to yet another state.
Research is not quick, easy, inexpensive, or always immediately fruitful. The challenge to answer our questions is in our minds while we eat, drive our car, or even in our dreams. We forge ahead and through various avenues, we get another clue that someone in the family moved to Montana or Washington. Please be Montana as more newspapers are online! We figure out that Mary Stuart Anderson did move to Montana and luckily, find a death date for her. She does have an online obituary that provides the name of her children. We then look at them and see that by today, all of them are deceased so we then turn to her grandchildren. One online search site provides a 2017 address for the person. Let the contact begin!
Is research complicated? Often it is. Are some people showing up in just about every database we check or lived their entire life in a state with considerable indexes, online images, and excellent libraries and historical societies for our research. You bet! Each of our ancestors and related families provides us with a different set of circumstances, known details, and clues. Don’t ever give up.
This post is only an overview of some research steps. Much more is involved in thorough searches. To learn more join a genealogical society, take classes on various genealogical topics, attend genealogy conferences, seminars, and institutes as many of us have done. All of this adds to our success ratio in finding that living relative(s) who may have a family bible, old letters, or can tell you about Cousin Susie who has tons of family information.
Some ancestors and other relatives are easily found, others take weeks, month, or even years. Are you up for the challenge?
Is this time and expense all worth it? You bet!