Tag Archives: missing ancestors

Lost Ancestors II – Solving Genealogy Mysteries by Finding Americans in Unexpected Places

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When we think of American migration in the mid-1800’s, the imagination often wanders to images of wagon trains and pioneer families trudging westward across the plains.  “Westward, Ho” was a reality, a great migration spurred by the opening of new territories and the California Gold Rush. Our “one-way” vision of migration toward only the west has been perpetuated by Hollywood movies.  The reality was not so tidy.

Our ancestors actually the ability to travel in all directions! The first steamboat on the Mississippi, the major North-South waterway, was launched in 1811. The first transcontinental -railroad was completed in 1869 and connected the east to the west.  From the 16th century onward ships crossed the Atlantic bringing new immigrants to the US and American visitors to the Old World.  Sure people migrated to isolated homesteads on the Great Plains, however others flocked to the small towns that grew on rivers and rail lines. With various modes of transport in place, our ancestors were more mobile than their film stereotypes.

For almost ten years I’ve been engaged in a surname research project (Tennessee Pryors). I continue to be amazed at how far people traveled and where they went causing them to disappear from the census and other public records for years at a time.  When you can’t find an ancestor in an expected location, then, try searching records for the unexpected places I’ve discovered.

Eastward, Ho! For some pioneers life in the frontier was just too unforgiving. When crops failed and homesickness set in, some of our ancestors went back to their eastern homes. Some cautious folks when faced with the uncertainty of what was in store for them in the Wild West, never sold their eastern land. So, just because an ancestor was found in the west and then disappears from records, don’t discount their possible return to their original community or nearby areas.  Pay attention to birthplaces on the census: while investigating a family in Virginia I found one of their children was born in Missouri. That opened the door to finding them on Missouri census records.

Washington, DC. When you know a family was educated and held social prominence you may find them in Washington, DC or surrounding areas. Like today, successful families gave back to their community by running for political office.  If in doubt, Wikipedia has numerous lists of political offices and who has held them.

France, Mexico, and Indian Territory: Before Louis and Clark, St. Louis was a pioneer town in the part of France (and for a time Spain) that would become the State of Missouri. More than 20 years before the Mexican War and the annexation of Texas, Stephen Austin took a group of American pioneers into an area of Mexico that wouldn’t become Texas until after the fall of the Alamo. Other pioneers headed into Indian Territory to establish homesteads or trading posts.  Sites like the Missouri Secretary of State Digital Heritage have some territorial records.  Often records are in the form of letters to territorial governors or land grants that have yet to be translated from Spanish or French, nor have they been transcribed into digital documents, so a meticulous search is needed to find reference to these pioneer families.

Travel Abroad: One family I research appeared to be lost from the census records. They were in the South up to the 1860 census and then they were gone. It wasn’t until I playfully searched the UK Census that I found them. Business had caused the family to move abroad. The UK Census provided the clue and subsequent searches of ships’ manifests and passenger lists gave the details of their return to the US—landing and setting in the North after the Civil War. The Canadian Border Crossing records on Ancestry are also helpful to the researcher.

Lost ancestors? All are not lost! With some diligent detective work in the unexpected places, you may find ancestors who you thought were missing.

Internet Genealogy: Lost Ancestors – 5 Strategies to Find Missing People on Internet Records

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I’ve hit my share of “brickwalls” in the research of my own family tree. What I’ve learned is that our ancestors were much more mobile than we ever thought. To help you in your hunt for lost ancestors and the “missing links” that will solve your genealogy mysteries I’m sharing the strategies that have led to finding people you may think were dead or never counted on public records.

1. County Lines: The US was a rapidly developing country beginning in the 19th century. Geographic features sometimes blurred where one county began and another ended and at other times counties were added as governmental districts were reassessed and towns were incorporated or expanded. Whatever the reason don’t write off the potential that an ancestor may be in a different county than expected or that records may exist in multiple counties.

Tip: Look in neighboring counties and larger towns that may have grown in distant counties. I found more than one ancestor counted twice (and in two different counties) on the census records!

2. Migration: It’s known from even grade school history classes that there was a tremendous migration to the western United States and territories. When an ancestor goes missing from the records it’s a good practice to look in the records of adjoining states or newly opened territories. Learning when territories were opened for homesteading and where land was given for military service also helps in tracking down elusive ancestors.

Tip: Use Wikipedia to find dates counties were formed, territories were opened, and when states were granted statehood.

3. Reverse Migration: An avenue of genealogy research that is often forgotten is reverse migration-when the land wasn’t good for farming or the conditions were too harsh, or homesickness became too much, our ancestors at times went back home or returned to the East. My personal favorite example is the 1860 Census of Lee County, VA. The census taker not only was meticulous about listing the birth state of every resident, but also listed their birth county. The number of people born in Eastern Tennessee to parents who were natives of Lee County is fascinating.

Tip: Don’t rule out people of similar names but born in different states as possible kin to your ancestors. That person born in Missouri who shows up on a Virginia census may be a missing connection!

4. Traveling: We shouldn’t assume that traveling began with the invention the jumbo jet! I’ve found ancestors in New York hotels and on ship manifests either going to or returning from trips abroad. An ancestor’s occupation may have called for travel. For example I found people elected to political office living far from home in Washington, DC. I found one family who appeared to have disappeared on a UK Census!

Tip: Even when you’re convinced an ancestor was a non-traveling farmer, search border crossings, ship passenger lists, and even foreign census records-you may be in for quite a surprise!

5. Civil War: The War Between the States was the first war which caused a significant change in many of our ancestors’ locations. Troops were moved from North to South, and South to North, and from one side of the country to another. Crops were destroyed along with livelihoods causing families to move from homesteads. The African American population comprised largely of recently freed slaves, were first enumerated by name on the 1870 census after many had left the plantations where they lived prior to the War. I found one ancestor from Tennessee who was captured by the Union army in the North and remained there after his release.

Tip: When researching an ancestor who served in the Civil War be sure to look at their date and place of discharge as it can be a clue to where they may have stayed after the War.

Don’t give up. With perseverance you’ll find who you are looking for where you least expect to find them.

Copyright 2010, Vanessa Wood