How To Track Down Missing Relatives

My paternal grandmother
My paternal grandmother
A cousin from my maternal line, of my grandmother's generation
A cousin from my maternal line, of my grandmother's generation | Source

Where To Start a Basic Search

This is a problem faced by many people tracing their family history for one reason or another. I am currently in a similar "dead-end" search for a pair of cousins I met only once.

For someone 80 years of age, you might start with the census records. The national census is taken every 10 years on years ending in zero; so 1900, 1910, 1920, etc. The data is released to the public on a schedule of 72 years after the census, so the 1900 census became available in 1972; the 1910 in 1982; the 1920 in 1992, etc. The most recent census to be released was the 1930 count, which became available in 2002. This year, 2012, the 1940 record will be available.

The 1950 census, (release date of 2022), will still be too early for my cousins who were born in 1952 and 1954. For those years, I'd need to find them in the 1960 census, which won't be released until the year 2032. I doubt I'll still be here, so I need to use other records.

Always begin your search with the person's last known place of residence.

All the Usual Suspects

Besides the census, there are many other records than can be searched. We might call them the "6 "C's" of family research:

  1. Census
  2. Church
  3. Cemetaries
  4. City Directories
  5. Court
  6. Criminal

In order, then, since we've already discussed the census, we next come to church records. If you know where the person was born, or can make a reasonable guess, then a search of church records will often get you either baptismal or marriage records; sometimes both if the person did not move away from their birth town. It helps if you have some clue as to which religion/church to begin your search, for otherwise you'll have to contact all the churches in that town. Not a major problem if it was a small town, but a daunting task if you're looking in a major metropolis.

Cemetary records are another place to search, especially in the case of someone who may be elderly--we must consider the possibility that they are no longer with us. As with the church records, the size of the task depends on the size of the town.

City directories can be very helpful, and more to the point, operate more like a telephone book, offering current information. Again, you need to have a good idea of the correct city to search. Not only are addresses given, but often occupations are listed as well.

Court records for wills, probate matters, marriages, divorces and property transfers can also be a place to look, for nearly everyone has at least this much contact with the court system at some point in their lives, even though most of the time these issues do not require an appearance in court.

Criminal court records are last on the list, because let's face it: none of us wants to believe that any relative of ours might have been involved in criminal activity. However, when it comes to relatives you are tracking down, (whether long-dead ancestors or current "lost" relatives), and have never met, not having known the person, you just never know what they might have been up to.

Additional Places to Look

Besides those "6 "C's," there are a good number of other sources that can be searched. These include:

  • Military records
  • Trade union and professional organization memberships
  • Adoption records (in states that do not permanently seal these documents)
  • Voter registration lists
  • Fraternal and civic organizations (Moose, IOOF, Masons, Rotary, etc.)
  • Newspapers (marriage, birth and death notices--but for this search to be useful, a fairly narrow time frame must be known, or searching would be a lifelong task.)
  • Social Security Death Index

Where Is All This Information Hidden?

None of the information is hiding. You just have to know where to look and how to inquire.

A great deal of it is available online, especially the census, Social Security death records, voter registration, births, marriages, military records, etc. Some of these records are very complete and up-to-date; others are rather sparse or hit-and-miss.

(The single main source for much of this data is at Ancestry.com. I don't work for them, and I have no real reason to promote them. In fact, their search filters are downright irritating--showing you a lot of information that was not in your specifications).

It's just that from experience in my own research, I've found that most searches online end up sending you there anyway. "Free family history records," or "genealogy information," typed into the search bar may start you off at a generic search engine page of results, but nearly every single link, no matter what it appears to be, will end up tossing you toward Ancestry.com. So save yourself some time, and just go there to begin with. You will be able to see some very basic data, but for the in-depth information that is going to be of any use, you will have to pay an annual membership fee to join. (Or, if you know someone who is already a member, perhaps you can convince them to search for you.)

Some of the information, however, is not online. For things such as court matters, criminal records, and most church records, you will need to apply in person for the information. Begin with a phone call to find out the exact contact person or department you need. From there, you might get lucky with a phone call--especially if you are dealing with a small town. In big cities,however, there are likely to be a maze of "procedures" to follow. These may include request forms, waiting periods, and often fees as well.

It's a Whole Process

It takes time, patience and sometimes money--perhaps minimal amounts for postage; perhaps larger amounts for fees to obtain copies of records. Unless you plan to do extensive traveling in your search however, any costs should be manageable on most any budget.

Think of it as a detective game--be your own Sherlock Holmes. In addition to the anticipation of finding the person you seek, there is also often the thrill of discovering other relatives you did not even know you had. What a fun way to expand your family!

Happy hunting!

More by this Author


Comments 13 comments

Steven Gray profile image

Steven Gray 4 years ago from Pensacola, Florida

I have some relatives in Britain that I'e been meaning to track down; I'll definitely be keeping this hub bookmarked for when I get down to the business of finding them later in the year. Thanks. :)


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello there, Steven Gray--

Thanks much--I'm pleased I was able to offer useful information. Best of luck in your search.


wordscribe43 profile image

wordscribe43 4 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

Awesome hub! I tracked down my half sister I'd never met using many of these techniques. Nowadays, Facebook REALLY helps. Even if the person you're looking for isn't on there, you may be able to get a lead from someone who knows him or her. Thanks for sharing this information.


ElizaDoole profile image

ElizaDoole 4 years ago from London

Very interesting. I did not know you could search criminal records. Might be best to check it just before you make contact with the long lost one eh? :)


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

@ wordscribe43--Thanks very much for the high praise. I'm delighted you liked the article.

And, ah, yes--Facebook--the useful P.I.T.A. ;-) it has its up side and its down side. We have met a cousin of my husbands on there, without even looking--an accidental coincidence--more like one of those "6 degrees of separation" things.

@ElizaDoole--Hee hee...indeed. I'm sure it has to be a finished and closed case for the information to be made available. Thank you for stopping by and adding to the discussion.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, these are great ideas, I have tried everything to track down two sides of the family, and funnily enough they both point towards Canada! the first was my great grandfather, who I never knew, but was Canadian, and the second, my mums side was her aunt who married a Canadian! better get my skates on and head out that way! lol! bookmarked, and thanks!


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi, Nell--

Thanks, very much for the compliment. I know, it is funny where families end up; in places you never would have expected. Best of luck on your search.


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

Useful information for the beginning genealogist. Very much interested in the hobby myself so I appreciate the info. Voting this Up and Useful.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, alocsin--

Thanks very much for your comment. I'm glad I was able to provide useful information. It's a fun hobby, for sure.

Thanks, also, for the votes!


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 2 years ago from Central Oklahoma

As with your other hubs, I'm coming late to this party but thought I'd throw in what I learned from being tasked with updating a collateral family's family history privately published in 1940. A boom whose compiler took it upon herself to leave out anyone whose parents had divorced or whose father's occupation wasn't up to her standards. (The cheek, as the English would say!)

Luckily, I had a fairly reliable descendant chart of earlier generations back to the original immigrant and his twelve children compiled by various family members from their own records. Knowing the book's author to not be a stickler for accuracy - to put it mildly! - I started all the way back at the 1850 censuses and worked my way forward.

To find descendants born in or after 1940, I relied on the assumption that most of their parents were now deceased (this was 2005) and that their obits would list children, the children's spouses and city of residence at the time of the death, also that some obits would have the same information for grandchildren. When I hit a brick wall, I turned to Google. One 20-something great-granddaughter I contactd through her husband's company's email address. And yes, I found one or two on Facebook, but I only looked there after all other methods failed.

When looking for living relatives, it's important to think outside the box. I have a blog called "Saturday's Child" which, alas, is covered in dust bunnies at the moment but in the past I've used to locate "lost" cousins by including relevant surnames as tags. The idea being that if one of them googles a particular surname, the blog post will come up in the results and they can then contact me in a comment or via email.

Great hub! Voted up!


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 2 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi JamaGenee!

"The cheek!" indeed! Or, to quote a Star Wars character, "How RUDE!"

It is both a fun and at times frustrating hobby. I got interested in my early 20's when the family records were given to me. As you say, there were entries in their old bible, and also hand-written statements, as well as tidbits in letters. My mother saved ALL the letters her relatives ever wrote to her, and after she passed, it was my intention to sift through them for pertinent data. Sadly, they ended up getting tossed out. I'll never forgive myself for that; who know what gems I might have discovered.

Thanks so much for your enthusiastic comment and the name of your blog that is "collecting dust bunnies!" Lol...love it...my blogs are all in the same condition.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 2 years ago from Central Oklahoma

My mother also saved every letter she ever received, and at one point I urged her to toss them. Thankfully she didn't, and after she died I did go through them all. Most were from pen pals and mostly of "it rained yesterday and I did a couple of loads of laundry" variety. Not worth saving, or even worth the trouble to send on to any of their relatives if I'd had any way to find them. The real treasures, however, were in the newspaper clippings I found stashed in unlikely places. Tidbits of local news, neighbors' weddings and anniversaries and such that I never would've looked for in newspaper microfilms, some of which turned out to be distant relatives I (and I suspect my mother) never knew we were related to. Her side of the family had absolutely NO interest in family history.

btw, did you ever find those twins? Were they real or simply an example for the purpose of this hub?


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 2 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Ah--the "pair of cousins" were not twins--just brother and sister, and yes, real. I've "sort of" got [unverified]information that the boy may have died young, at around age 26; his sister, I've yet to find.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working