Sounds strange to say â€œtwentieth century ancestors,â€ doesnâ€™t it? There are those who would scoff at the notion of research within the last century being true genealogy. And fortunately, many of our twentieth century ancestors are still very much with us! In fact, many of you reading this are technically twentieth century ancestors yourselves.
But still, a lot can happen in a hundred years; whole generations can enter the stage and exit within that time frame. So how do you go about finding those most recent of ancestors–or even, some living kin?
In general, contemporary research is easier than distant, simply because the more contemporary the times, the more plentiful the paper trail. That is, unless you factor in privacy concerns and increasing restrictions on access to records.
I wrestle with these restrictions on a daily basis due to my work on the U.S. Armyâ€™s Repatriation project. Since I need to locate living family members of men who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, I am immersed in a world of twentieth century ancestors–and other assorted relatives. So based on my experience, here are a few suggestions:
- Surround and conquer. Donâ€™t obsess on the individual youâ€™re seeking. Find others associated with him or her and gradually work your way closer. Collateral relatives are a good start, but so are others who went to the same school or church, served in the same military unit, or hail from the same hometown and happen to sport the same surname (youâ€™d be surprised how often folks of a given surname can tell you about unrelated people of the same name just because they get each otherâ€™s mail, share the same veterinarian, or otherwise overlap lives in some fashion).
- Make friends with census records–especially the every-name ones. At present, Ancestry.com offers every-name indexes for the U.S. Federal census records for 1900, 1920, and 1930 (one wonders when 1910 might make its debut!). I conducted an experiment tracking resources consulted in ten successfully resolved cases, and census records were pivotal in 80 percent of them. Of course, it helps that theyâ€™re amazingly useful in terms of the surround-and-conquer principle. One of my favorite tactics is finding toddlers in the 1930 census and using other resources (perhaps the U.S. Phone and Address Directories, 1993-2002 or U.S. Public Records Index) to find them today!
- Follow the trail of the deceased to find the living. Since the living are so well protected with various privacy laws, make good use of the Social Security Death Index and obituaries–for those associated with the person youâ€™re seeking. For example, if I have a case for a soldier who was born in 1928, I might find the names of several of his siblings in the 1930 census and then check the SSDI to see if any of his siblings have passed on. If so, I might get an indication of where the family (or at least, some portion of it) is today. And I can use the SSDI details to try to locate an obituary. Theyâ€™re not quite as common as they used to be, but when theyâ€™re located, details provided might include anything from married names of sisters to the name of the funeral home that handled the burial. All of these can be bridges to contacts today. And for those who might be concerned that this method could be used by those wishing to commit fraud (believe it or not, I actually had a librarian sternly inform me recently that obituaries are private records!), let me assure you that crooks arenâ€™t willing to work this hard!
Â Happy hunting!
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through www.genetealogy.com and www.honoringourancestors.com.
— New City, NY – Genealogical Society of Rockland County
(May 6, 2006, New City, New York)
— Roots in the Boot
(July 15, 2006, Pittsburgh, PA)