Question: I have been researching my paternal grandfather for many years without luck. He was born Edward James Wilson, to parents James Joseph Wilson and Eliza Jane Young (Irish) on 29 August 1887, New York City. He also used alias names – Frederick and Ernest. On his enlistment in the Canadian army he stated his father lived in Wolzey, New York, but I wrote the U.S. Post Office and they confirmed no place ever existed. He told my father he was raised in Ontario and we can confirm he homesteaded in the Neidpath area, southeast of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. He also supposedly lived in Fosston, Minnesota, and said he was an early photographer for nature magazines in the early 1900s. I have looked everywhere in Canada, New York, and Minnesota without any luck.
How do I go about conducting a search when there are so many geographical areas?
Answer: You grandfather is quite the elusive one, isn’t he?
Six things I recommend:
- Review all the records you have. You have probably been collecting information about your grandfather for a while now. Gather all the records and information you have and go through each one looking for information you might have missed.
- Phonetic spellings. When it comes to place names or surnames, say the name out loud and try and spell it phonetically. Wolzey, maybe could have been Woolsey? There is a post office in Astoria, New York named Woolsey Station. Then again your father may have remembered incorrectly. Don’t assume any statement on any document has to be true.
- Name and place timeline. Create a timeline listing dates and best known places for your grandfather. Then you can start searching not just for vital records (that may not exist), but family and local histories, church records and newspapers that may have clues on your grandfather. Creating Timelines to Better Understand Records and Families has some pointers on how to do that.
- Search one place at a time. Once you have your timeline you can start searching specific areas in that time. Make sure that you understand how to use place filters in our search forms. Five Minute Find: Location, Location, Location will get you started.
- Get out the FAN club. Elizabeth Shown Mills identifies a FAN club as a person’s friends, associates and neighbors. If you can’t find someone by tracing them or even their brothers and sisters, then start tracing their FANs. People very often moved in groups and this may lead to you to clues about your grandfather. Read more in Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Quick Lesson 11: Identity Problems & the FAN Principle.
- What question are you trying to answer? Don’t just look for records. Decide what question you are trying to answer. Where was Edward James Wilson in 1930? Who were his brothers and sisters? Where did he die? Then ask yourself what types of records would help me find this information. Look at our place pages for a list of data collections about a specific area, such as Minnesota and Canada for your grandfather. When you focus on a specific question and look for records to answer that question, you are much more likely to be successful.
Sometimes genealogy makes you want to bang your head against that brick wall. Keep at it. Show what you have to others. You never know who might see something you don’t. And Good luck!
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. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.