How To Track Down Missing Relatives
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.
This book will help track your "missing" relatives.
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:
- City Directories
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.
Related Hubs I've Written
- Genealogy: Family Trees 101
Family trees--how to begin building yours. From interviewing relatives to searching various archives, the hobby is explained.
- Genealogy--Family Trees--How To Use The Data Forms
Genealogy and family history charts; various types and how to use them
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!
A guide to using online resources