Question: My great-great-grandfather’s name was Curtis Null, born about 1856 in Missouri according to the 1880 census. He died in 1887 in Jefferson County, Missouri. I have been unable to find him in any other census. His parents’ names aren’t listed on his death record. I had my brother take a DNA test for me and have spent countless hours searching every spelling variation in every state with no luck. Where do I go from here?
Regina Null, Missouri
Answer: Some ancestors just fall out of the records nicely, and then there are those infamous brick wall ancestors. Challenging? Yes. Fun? Sometimes. Frustrating? Absolutely!
Let’s start by taking a look at Curtis in the 1880 census.
In this census, he is listed as Curt Null, born about 1856 in Missouri, his parents’ birthplace as well. He has a wife, Emmaline, born about 1857 and a daughter, Rosalie, born about 1878. Also living in the house is a Julia Tillotson, age 14, who is a servant. Notice that Curt is listed as not being able to read and write.
His death record is in the Missouri, Deaths and Burials Index, 1873–1976, database and tells us that he was born in Jefferson County, Missouri, and died in House Springs, Jefferson County, Missouri.
We can also find Curt in Missouri, Death Records, 1834–1910. This record confirms that he likely lived in Jefferson County all his life. Also, that he was 30 years and 2 months old when he died on June 25, 1887, which means he was born sometime in April 1857.
We also know from the death register that he was buried in Kidd Cemetery, and there is a Curtis Null with no defining information in that cemetery on Find a Grave.
I checked the Ancestry.com wiki and found that Jefferson County did not start keeping birth records until 1883.
Next, I looked for Curt in the 1860 and 1870 census records. Just as you said, there are no Curtis or Curt Nulls to be found, even with a variety of spellings.
Maybe he was left off both the 1860 and the 1870 censuses, though I seriously doubt it. Maybe the information in the death register is wrong. And maybe he went by a different name in his youth, possibly a nickname or a middle name.
So what to do next?
- Sort out the Nulls buried in the Kidd Family Cemetery. It’s a small cemetery and there may be a relation or two buried there.
- Contact the historical society in Jefferson County and see if they have a list of churches in the area that might have records.
- Study the Null families that lived in Jefferson County in 1870. Start with the ones that lived in Meremac, which is where Curtis lived in 1880, and it’s likely he lived there in 1870. Look for males born between 1855 and 1859 and try and find the ones that you know cannot be Curtis. Then you are left with the maybes to examine.
- Check the message boards. It appears you aren’t the only one working on this project. (See the message board post: “Kirk NULL (1854–1928) and Curtis NULL (1856–1887).” Contact the others and see what they know.
- Search for online trees with Curtis Null in them or his children and try to contact the people who created them. Maybe if you combine information, you will be able to piece together the answer.
- If your brother took a Y-DNA test, consider taking a new autosomal test like AncestryDNA, which will look at all lines of your family. You can take the test yourself and then see if any of your DNA cousin matches can help.
- Research Emmaline’s family thoroughly as well. You have a death certificate for one of her children that lists her maiden name as Tillotson, and a Julia Tillotson is living with the family in 1880. Research both of them.
- If you have access to wills or land records from that area, or can hire someone who does, start looking for Curtis or Emmaline or the children and see if you can find any related Nulls.
You ancestors have presented you with a tough one; there is no doubt about it. But keep looking and keep connecting with people who are also researching this problem. Someone is going to turn up the critical piece of information sooner or later.
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.