Posted by Ancestry Team on October 27, 2013 in Ask Ancestry Anne, Site Features

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?
Sharon Robb

Answer: You grandfather is quite the elusive one, isn’t he?

Six things I recommend:

  1. 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.image03
  2. 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.
  3. image02Name 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

Happy Searching!

Ancestry Anne


  1. TC

    Shirley – you do have the option to travel to each city you *think* you may have relatives in, and search in the court records, paying for EACH and EVERY one.

    There is the pesky reality of having to pay for lodging, food and gas along the way to each city as well. If you need to search overseas, I sure hope you saved your pennies for all the airfare you are going to need as well.

    Ancestry will remain alive and well for those of us who have done research the old way and recognize the value of what they bring to each of us whom can now search from our bedrooms or living rooms.

  2. There is the pesky reality of having to pay for lodging, food and gas along the way to each city as well. If you need to search overseas, I sure hope you saved your pennies for all the airfare you are going to need as well.

  3. Lillian Laranjo Nickerson

    This info helpful ONLY if your ancesters were born in this country !!!
    Also — Census Records are full of errors as they depend on who recorded the info, IF they could spell name correctly and definitely get
    correct dates. For instance: Searched in Census for my father and found (1) some woman listed as his LIVING mother (no record of another marriage). His mother died when he was 3. Record lists siblings and he was an only child. His father was born in the Azores and Census shows Portugal. That is like saying I was born in the USA when actually I was born in California which is part of USA. Who is this woman shown as his wife? My dad didn’t know. So, isn’t there some record besides the Census to help my find grandparents birth place?

  4. Yvonne Robertson

    Hi, I can find my maternal grandparents in the 1930 census only. I know where they lived, but can not find anything before or after that. Where else can I check or who can offer me help.


  5. Janean

    My grandparents came over from Denmark. My mom is stuck on my grandfather’s, George Jorgensen married to Myrtle. How can I get his records from Denmark?

  6. Larry


    Try The Danish State Archives:

    (There are English translations for most pages and records… see the top right-hand corner of each page.)

    You can find their Census records… A home town is a big help if you know it. Many of these census records have been transcribed and are searchable, but many are not. The original census records are in Danish and a bit of a challenge to read. The archives have also put original images of church records on line. These records are a challenge to search but with some patience and persistence they can be very rewarding.

  7. FEDup

    BigFED, your comment was written with the intent to make Lillian feel stupid and show everyone how smart you are. The funny thing is, it did just the opposite!

  8. Yvonne

    I was having a hard locating my family in the census records, too. I tried various spellings and some phonetic searches, but I was striking out– there were just too many possible variations! So I decided to look for neighbors whose name was not as difficult, and sure enough there my family was right on the same page. I never would have found them without visually looking at the record. After awhile I was able to discover that my specific relative’s accent was a big part of the problem (it seems that whole syllables would be missing as if my relative mumbled or swallowed the word) and I tried variations that were like the previous errors and became more successful. Looking by address is helpful in towns, but most of my relatives didn’t live on named roads.

  9. Hi Ann, I have sent a question to you earlier regarding locating my grandfather’s parents in italy but have no response from you.

    I agree you can find people throughout the US but how do you go about searching in italy or other countries. I even have addresses…

    thank you,

  10. Debbie Andrews

    I have previously been on Ancestry and have been able to trace much of my family. But, I always run into the same roadblock and do not know how to get past it. My 4X great-grandfather, John Shearer (1781-1853) from Pennsylvania, has his father listed as George Jacob Shearer(1752-1811) in many documents and other family trees. When I further research George Jacob, Ancestry is showing him as “no known relationship to me.” Some research shows a George Jacob Shearer as born in Somerset PA. Other documents show a George Jacob Shearer as born in Ireland. They both show the same birth dates, death dates, and family history The one common name that also comes up is that George’s father is listed as Jacob Hauser who was born in Germany and died in PA. Why different last name? All research after that takes me to Germany and those families are not recognized by Ancestry as being my relatives. Confused yet? Me too. Could use some help on this one so I can further my family research.

  11. Laura

    Debbie —

    Keep in mind that the ancestry family trees are simply trees other people have put up and may or may not be correct. I’ve found LOTS of errors in those trees. Ancestry uses search to help you look at documents, unfortunately, a lot of people just assume the information is correct and accept it wholeheartedly without looking at it critically. While there may be a match, often the suggestion is simply incorrect or a different person with a similar name.

  12. Vivian Parkman

    I am looking for the burial site of my gg grandfather, Rev. John Wesley Craft. He was born around 1828 in Hart County, Georgia. He died aft. 1910 (he was in the 1910 census). This has been my “brick wall” in my Craft research. He married first, Mary Martha (Craft). Married second, Amanda Christian.

  13. Lucy A Finnegan

    TC regarding Shirley Brooke:
    Your response was a bit harsh. Shirley was obviously distressed because she didn’t have the resources to support her effort to research her family. A little compassion would have been nice along with a friendlier explanation of why the fees are reasonable.

  14. Ken Kerr

    You can access through the Library and Archives Canada all WW1 attestation (enlistment) papers. Sharon can see her grandfather’s and actually see he wrote he was usually called Frederick and that was the way he signed his name.

  15. Cheryle

    Lillian Laranjo Nickerson: forgive me if this is something you’ve already thought of, but I’ve come across records that I *thought* were a family member only to discover it was someone with the same name and not my relative. I think it’s a big red flag that there’s someone listed as “mother” and that there are siblings, when your father had neither.

    The other possibility is that, on the day the census was taken, he was staying with/visiting someone and was included in their family’s census for some reason. (My own grandfather and his mother lived for a time with his mother’s mother and step-father, and were listed in the census under the step-father’s surname. I didn’t know she had remarried and would never have found them if it hadn’t been for someone on the message boards who was very helpful!)

    Have you checked immigration or ship’s records for them? I’d use soundex rather than exact spelling. HTH.

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