Finding 20th Century Ancestors, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Tulips and pansiesSounds strange to say “twentieth century ancestors,” doesn’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. Army’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. Don’t obsess on the individual you’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 (you’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 other’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, 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 they’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 you’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. They’re not quite as common as they used to be, but when they’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 aren’t willing to work this hard!

 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 and

Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking

— New City, NY – Genealogical Society of Rockland County
(May 6, 2006, New City, New York)
— Roots in the Boot
(July 15, 2006, Pittsburgh, PA)

6 thoughts on “Finding 20th Century Ancestors, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. Yes indeed, obituaries are supremely valuable in family research. My fellow family researchers, and I, had been stuck trying to find any descendants, or ancestors, of our Greatgrandfather’s (our patron) brother’s children. We had hoped that they had the information that we craved, the names of our patron’s parents. I had tried several times searching the obituaries for any, and all, members of these families for info. While reading literally hundreds of obits, I came across our family name, Hodges, in the obituary of a man named Young. The widow of this man was listed including her maiden name, Hodges. It even listed her father, and mother’s name. We knew these names, but did not know her name, as she was born in the latter months of 1930, and not listed in 1930 census. Using this information, I was able to search in an entirely new direction, and found her son’s posting for their family on I posted a postem to his family posting, and was contacted by her son. We are meeting this July in Iowa, their home. The really great news is that they DO HAVE the information that we had been searching for 15 years to find. The annual fees that I pay are a small price to pay for the information available through your service. Thank You.

  2. I have had great success in locating living cousins, some of whom I did not know existed by using I located a first cousin and her siblings by the California Birth Index, and then the U.S. Phone Directories. We have since met and are keeping in touch via email. We are exchanging information and pictures with other cousins of the same family all of whom I have found using

  3. After ten frustrtating years of trying to locate the death of my
    GGGrandmother, not only did I find that in a Brockton City Directory, but that led to her obituary and death notice. Those
    provide the information to identify a brother and his wife and
    Eight children, adding 10 members of the Family.

  4. I must agree that there are many paths available to follow when looking for a way over that brick wall. Many years ago I was separated from my mother’s family after her death. As an adult, I really wanted to find them. First, I looked for her obituary. She died when I was 10 yrs old and in 1969 they used the husband’s name in the listing. I finally emailed the publisher of the newspaper where she died. He sent the obituary. I was then able to find out the names of her siblings. Next, I read all of the census available to find where her father had lived as a child, and to see if any names were familiar. I found out that he had been raised in a children’s home. I then posted on every applicable message board all of the information that I had. Three years ago, a cousin of my mother’s answered my post and gave me great family information, as well as pointing me in the direction that I needed to find my grandmother and aunts and uncle. I then used a search engine and pulled up 13 names in Oregon that matched my uncle’s name. I called the first one and it was my uncle. He lives 5 miles from my now 87 yr old grandmother. I was able to reunite with my mother’s family in 2003. I went to see my grandmother in 2004. I have become very close to all and one aunt has lived 2 hours away from me for 20 years. Last year my grandmother wrote her “memoirs” so that I could have all of her memories, ones that we take for granted, that I never had. She hand wrote 100 pages of memories and has given me many, many generational pictures.. My whole point is, use the tools that the internet gives you and never give up. I not only have a wonderful genealogy in the works but a great family back. As I said, “never give up.”

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