Occasionally, genealogical researchers find ancestors who are a complete mystery. It’s almost as if the specific ancestor doesn’t want to be found! They could have been on the move, lived during a time with limited record keeping, or legitimately have kept a low-profile for a wide variety of reasons. Encountering these situations is both frustrating and a fascinating puzzle to untangle. If you’re struggling to track down an ancestor who seems to have lived the equivalent of their time period’s “off the grid”, there are a number of techniques you can use to help track them down.
Start with what you do know
It sounds obvious, but begin the search by documenting what you do know. Any scrap of information may prove useful. A name, a date of birth, an intimation about where someone was born, a relative’s name, or an occupation or religious affiliation may be the detail that leads to a break in your research. Start by gathering all the information that’s available. Being systematic and organized will ensure that you don’t miss a critical detail that could ultimately help you track them down as you move further into the process.
Employ the circling technique
Often, dead ends occur when you’re hunting directly for an ancestor. Endless searches for a specific name prove fruitless. For example, one individual searching for her great-grandfather knew his name and birth city. Unfortunately, it turned out that several individuals sharing that common name had been born in the same year in his town. Without more information, it was impossible to distinguish them apart and then follow their lives forward. Yet in her case, once she uncovered his sister’s name she was able to ultimately follow the trail back to the original target. Understanding that ethnic groups often settled together, that families may have lived near each other, and even details about lifelong friends or neighbors can be enough to help you look at a research problem in a whole new way.
Look outside the usual record types
Another technique that researchers employ with some success is changing the order that they’re viewing records. For example, if you always bound your search by locating the birth and death certificates first, it may be useful to work on finding other sources of information. Does searching marital records, immigration records, military records, the archives of fraternal orders, or even prison records yield potential leads? Have you tried searching other available family trees online or looking for newspaper mentions? While you’ll ultimately need to source, document and verify everything, changing your research technique can help you find promising leads.
Work with a professional genealogist
A dead end in your research is the perfect situation to work with a professional genealogist. A professional genealogist has years of experience formulating research strategies and tackling the toughest research problems. He or she will be able to work with you to determine what you already know, to develop a research plan that takes advantage of available sources, and generally bring a fresh perspective to the table. While it’s not always possible to track down every ancestor, many researchers are happy to learn that their family’s stories are not lost to the ages.
If you’re struggling to solve a complex family history challenge, contact Price & Associates today. Our professional genealogical researchers will help you determine how best to move forward with your search.