Tips from the Pros: Set Up an “Unknowns” Folder

from George G. Morgan

We all have names and documents concerning people we can’t yet link to our own family lines. Don’t throw these pages away! These “unknowns” may eventually fit into the genealogy puzzle. Take the time to set up an “unknowns” folder for every surname you are researching. Periodically, go back through these folders and reevaluate the possibility that they are part of your family tree. You may be surprised to find links, even after several years.

15 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Set Up an “Unknowns” Folder

  1. That is one of the best suggestions I’ve heard in years. I know I can apply it with my paper files, but do you have any suggestions for how it might be used with Family TreeMaker?


  2. With Fammily Tree Maker open, click on “People” in the tool bar. Then Click on “Add Unrelated Individual”….. PAT

  3. I have done something like that — even have a notebook on one line that may be related, but we can’t prove it. I have wanted to input it into FTM, but didn’t know how. Thanks, Pat!

  4. I have a folder named “SHIPS” as in ships that pass in night….unknowns….but may be related…

  5. I have been doing this for several years now in my electronic files, occasionally with my paper files (although I have mad esubstantial progress in making my electronic files the overwhelming “master” file), and I have on numerous occasions found new “cousins”, confirmed a not-related line, or confirmed a previously known person where the “unknown” had an alternate or incorrect spelling. A very good tactic!

  6. Some “unknowns” later turn out to be definitely unrelated, although they “fit in” with what I already know. One example was a woman who died exactly one week after my known relative, in the same California city. Her birth year was two years sifferent, to the day, from my relative. The other woman was the only one who appeared in the SSDI, so I assumed I had found the right one. Then I searched the California Death Index and found both woman, with their mothers’ maiden names. I kept the information on the other woman, so if anyone else researching this family makes the same mistake, I can help.

  7. Here is a suggesion for an alternative to the category “Unknowns.” I adopted a variation of a law enforcement term that has become popular the last several years, “Person of Interest.” So now I have in my files a category for each surname such as “Emmerts of Interest.” I place information in this file for people I have come across that have no proven connection to the Emmert line I am researching, but who are interesting or might be related. I intend, of course, no hint of suspicion that these people are lawbreakers. Comment by Roger Franke — 7 November 2006

  8. You gave good advice here. About 6 years ago I ran across a name that some believed was my grandfather’s wife. I could not, at the time see any connection, but I kept the name in mind. I did write it down and put it my family folder. Then I finally got some good information about my grandfather and there was the name of the lady that didn’t fit in. What I failed to acknowledge was that my grandfather could have been married before my father was born. I did know that my father had an older brother and an older sister but did not connect them with the first wife of my grandfather. These two of course were half brother and sister to my dad. The first lady in my grandfather’s life died and left him with 2 small children, they had only been married for 5 years. So keep in mind any person that has what looks to be of value to your family, could possibily be the missing link to greater finds.

  9. I just cane across a family mender that was a case of two brothers marring wives of the same name Emma and not knowing which Emma is the one I wanted her family history on. Now I want the obituary for the other Emma and think I have it but not filed in a accessible place. That unrelated place in family tree maker will be put to use with me. Also maiden names that are not known I show them as
    [Given (___________)Surname] so the names in the index is not all unknown’s. Then when you bring up the outline descendant tree you have blank spaces for the unknown maiden name and the index has Jane(______)Doe in the right place.

  10. The people who don’t fit are often interesting. I’ve created a PAF database for one of my ancestral families called Mesick not attached. I source the information when I find it. I review it periodically to see if my search has found them in a related setting. Sometimes I have been able to move entire families who previously did not fit into the main database.

  11. I’ve been using a “Might Be Related” chart at the back of my research journals on each of my basic families for use while researching. There I jot down the name of the questionable person and related information as well as the source/citation where found. I then have a corresponding “Might Be Related” file at the back of the box of file folders of each basic family where I can file any additional or more complete material relating to this person. However, I now think the term “Person of Interest” might be more appropriate. In one of my families several people appear that are friends but not really related. Thank you for your information — especially regarding entering these people into my Family Tree Maker program. I had forgotten that that is also an option.

  12. This sounds like a great idea. All the people my parents played cards with I thought were just neighbors, but I came to find out that they were all cousins, three generations back. I will try to keep better track of cousins with this method.

  13. I have been keeping “unknown” files for each family for some years now, and have extended the idea a bit further. At the end of my recently completed book on one of my families I’ve listed in chronological order, with locations, all the names, dates, sources and any other information on the unconnected people with that family name. That way any later researchers who might have access to new information, (or more effective research techniques!)can pick up the threads and maybe take the story further.

  14. I think this is great. I have saved some, and I keep wondering why. I also sent for documents (death cert. etc.) and found they were not who I thought they were. But I am saving them. One never knows.

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