Tips To Help You Find Seemingly "Lost" Ancestors

by Diane L. Richard | Jul 30, 2010

Diane L. Richard

So, for one reason or another, you have "lost" your ancestor - now what? What you do depends on some of the possible reasons that they are "lost" and the time period and locale(s) involved. Here are a few tricks and tips to help you find an ancestor that appears to be "lost".

What's In A Name?

There are many ways to approach the issue of name spelling. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Look for similar names which start the same and maybe the ending has been changed - e.g. Hastings, Hasten, or a letter disappears - e.g. Johnston becomes Johnson.
  • Look for names that could "sound" similar. Do NOT rely on soundex searching - many name variants are not encompassed by the soundex methodology. And, not all "name variants" start with the same letters. Here are some of the found variants for the surname Raino -- Rayno, Rono, Reno, Rano, Reyno, Reynes. If I had limited myself to just searching on Ra* -- I would have missed more than half of these variants. On a related note - not all of the ways a surname (or forename) was spelled are what we consider "real names." Guess what - it doesn't matter.
  • Look at the hand-writing of the clerk. Are c's and o's confusing, how about c's and e's, or l's and f's ... basically, variability in hand-writing, misinterpretations made by those abstracting the names, etc can all lead us to "miss" an ancestor in the records.

Can't Find In The Census

There can be many reasons why we don't find someone in the census. Some of these mysteries can be very challenging to solve and some are a bit easier: the slave found in 1870 will necessitate research into wills, estate and deed records to locate in the pre-emancipation time period. The possible civil war veteran will hopefully be found in compiled service records, pension records, or other military collections.

  • Consider that your ancestor may have been incarcerated, hospitalized, serving in the military, away at school, etc and look into those records.
  • Is it possible that the jurisdiction where your ancestor listed changed? He might not have moved and the political boundaries may have!
  • Did you look in neighboring counties, even if it's across a state line? Just like people today may work in one place and actually live in another, our ancestors sometimes did the same. Or, after living somewhere for a bit, realize that they would rather live someplace else once they learned more about the area. Do check out nearby neighborhoods.

If you are positive that they should be in a certain locale, have you checked the local directories to confirm that? I was researching the Rauschenbach family in Paterson NJ - information both before and after the 1900 census suggested that the family, once they emigrated, remained in Paterson until the parents died. Yet, I could not find them in the 1900 census.

I reviewed the directories for the c. 1900 time period, learned where they lived, located the address on Google maps (or any similar map showing cross streets) and used one of the tools developed by Steve Morse (1900-1940 Census ED Finder) to find which Enumeration District (ED) for the 1900 census was appropriate. I manually scrolled through each page of the Enumeration and finally found the family.

I could certainly understand why the census "indexer" struggled with correctly spelling the surname, as the variability of the ink's coverage made certain letters almost illegible unless one zooms in.  The forenames were also atypical for the family (see the 2nd family listed). The wife was Theresa and the husband was Frederick, not FE and Jude.


The quality of the document made discerning the surname "Rauschenbach" difficult to read unless you greatly enlarge the entry.

A Husband Isn't Found In The Census

One consideration is that the occupation of the husband was such that he was frequently not "at home" on census night. Look into extant vital records for the children, seek out a marriage document for the parents, investigate tax records (even if they had no personal property, they would probably have been liable for a poll tax), court records, directories and similar records to document the existence of the father, learn his forename, etc.

Children Without Parents

There are many instances where children are found living with grandparents, in an orphanage, as an adoptee, etc. There can be records searched to ferret out who the parents were.

  • Depending on the time period, make sure that you have every piece of paper on the child - starting with death and marriage and if modern-enough, possibly a birth certificate and his/her SS-5 (this is the Original Application for a Social Security Number.  Read a Brief History of Social Security to learn more about the program and to request a copy of the application for a deceased individual.  Learn how to make a FOIA request). These records will typically provide information on a person's birth place, birth date and who their parents were.
  • Research the children of the grandparents - can you account for all of them? Did one reach adulthood and die prematurely, remarry, move elsewhere for work, etc? Does a will for the grandparents list the grandchildren as issue of a child, now deceased?
  • Have you looked at estate records for the surname of the children? Estate records can sometimes include guardianship papers. If no estate file or will are found, are there any court minutes or other record groups where guardianship was handled (often an accounting has to be made to the court for the expenses incurred, income made, etc).
  • Do any records for the orphanage survive? Due to privacy laws, record loss, private vs public institutions, etc, it can be challenging to gain access to orphanage records, even for those who are deceased. If you look at earlier census records, can you find possible parents in the community and then try to connect them to the children?
  • If someone is listed as adopted, do learn what the rules for accessing adoption records might be. For example, in NC they are very strict and require a court order, though, there is an alternate record group called "Special Proceedings" where the names of parties to certain actions are listed (often divorces, adoptions and other "special" circumstances). Though you won't find detailed information, such a record group might at least "clue" you in that something involving these individuals was handled by the court.
  • If you find a child living with individuals with different surnames, the child may have been apprenticed to the named family. This did NOT always mean that the parents were deceased, sometimes it meant that the family could not support the child. Since this was a contractual obligation, I have seen cases where the surviving parent went before the court to claim "abuses" by the person under whom their child was serving an apprenticeship and this resulted in the child being apprenticed to another. Check court and loose records exhaustively for such mentions.

Children Bearing Mother's Surname

If you run across this, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, this may suggest that the child was a "bastard." If so, many states and communities were quite diligent with making sure that such children did not become wards of the community (or members of the poor house). A lot of pressure was typically brought on the woman to name who the father was so that a "bastardy bond" (or something similar) could be collected from the named father to maintain the child until adulthood.

Though, a woman was not required to name the father, especially if her family was willing to post bond and support the child or there was no risk that the child would become a burden on society (e.g. the family was wealthy and so the court didn't even become involved). The named man did have some recourse to dispute the charge and if not then he was obligated to post a bond like this one.

Additional Resources

Obviously, the above discussion just scratches the surface on how you might go about finding "lost" ancestors, e.g. solve that brick wall you are facing. If you still haven't found your ancestors using some of the suggestions above and/or you just want to read more about these challenging "brick wall" problems and possible strategies to smash such a wall, check out these resources:

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