Fractured Family, by Maureen Taylor

Fifty years ago a series of volcanic eruptions in the Azores, a group of Atlantic Ocean islands, caused a mass migration of people to Rhode Island. You can read about the changes in the lives of these immigrants in a recent story in a local newspaper, East Bay).

In the case of these immigrants, natural disaster prodded them to leave home. The story reminded me of all the different ways in which our families become fractured and how these events affect our family history.

People from all over the world began streaming into the land we call the United States almost since the first explorer set foot on its shores. Some individuals came alone and others in family groups in a process that continues today. Often these folks left relatives behind in their homeland. Proof exists in family collections of letters and photos offering reassurance that loved ones arrived safely in their new land. Yet, unless communication was easy and frequent (and even when it was), new generations of Americans lost touch with their family back home. It happens.

Finding those “missing” relatives requires persistence, patience, and proof. Start by looking for tangible information (e.g., passports, naturalizations, diaries, correspondence, and photographs). Ask relatives about oral traditions relating to your immigrant ancestor’s arrival. Then search the Immigration Collection on Ancestry and the passenger lists on Read the educational information on both sites to see if your ancestors fit the time period covered by these digital databases. If not, you might want to look at the Immigration & Naturalization category on for tips and resources.

Genealogies of New England families are full of simple references to those that “went West.” Those two words leave a blank in the family record. Got someone in your pedigree that disappeared into the American frontier? Study the time period in which these adventurous folks left to discover whether they sought wealth in an America Gold Rush, followed a religious leader, built a canal, or drove stakes for a railroad. Examine all the records they created in their lifetime and search for clues to their whereabouts. The census record collection on is a good way to search nationally for individuals living far from their original hometown. Use the advanced search features to specify a place of birth and a year to narrow down hits.

Illness and Disease
The evidence of illness and disease is apparent in cemeteries and in clusters of deaths in family records. Do you know if your family lost anyone in the flu pandemic of 1918 or the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793?

Estimates show that 50 million to 100 million people died from the 1918 flu and thousands died from the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century. Smallpox, diphtheria, and cholera were common in many areas of the country, and in the twentieth century these were joined by newer diseases like polio.

When a whole branch of your family disappears from genealogical notes, search for a reason. Read the newspapers available on Ancestry to see what was happening in the area when they dropped from view, and look at local histories and death records for health clues. My great-grandfather died in his early forties due to pneumonia. He contracted it working outside transporting goods in the middle of a blizzard. His death certificate provided a cause of death and the newspapers provided the reason for his demise.

War–Political and Familial
My dad and one of his brothers (now deceased) had a long-standing feud. The reasons for the disagreement have never been divulged. This familial gulf separated my cousins from the rest of the family. To reconnect I scoured old address books and searched While one of my cousin’s home telephone number and address changed, her husband had retained their old phone number for work. Bingo!

Having tracked down these “forgotten” folks, I found that they’re interested in learning more about their heritage. Now we’re trying to repair the gap and restore a sense of family. I know I’m not alone. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve experienced similar schisms in their families. The tools to reunite the past and present are at your fingertips online and in the hands of relatives.

The American Revolution and all the wars in the history of this country divide families and change the course of their destiny. Brothers fought brothers during the Civil War and world wars transported our loved ones to other lands. While my mom’s family returned home after World War II, my father’s siblings scattered around the country. His sisters married servicemen and one of his brothers moved to California. I’m proof positive that these national events create unintentional rifts in families. Searching the military collection on Ancestry is an easy first step towards finding the service men and women amongst your ancestors.

What Else?
This is a short list of major occurrences that change the course of family history. What events divided your family? Share your own experiences and how you overcame them in your research in the Comments section here on the blog.

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Maureen Taylor is the “The Photo Detective.” She writes about family history and photography on her blog at

10 thoughts on “Fractured Family, by Maureen Taylor

  1. The discovery of gold in 1848 brought my mother’s folks from Virginia to the placer hills of California, via Missouri. Her great grandparents met and married in El Dorado county. But the wonderlust was still in them and they ended up in Oregon in 1880 and died in Tacoma WA. The attraction to move to the Northwest was the homesteading opportunities.
    It has been a challenge to re-connect these two to their Virginian roots as they left there before the 1850 census. I have taken family stories and studied the surnames in the suspect counties and contacted researchers who have posted families that were likely candidates. Ancestry has done a wonderful job with marriage and property tax records from early Virginia which has helped me as well. Once you get a feel for the population of an area and the number of folks with the surnames you are looking for the choices are narrowed. I have had two lucky finds as well. The Library of Virginia had a will from Essex county for one of my ancestors, and a county in Missouri listed another as a Revolutionary War soldier – which led me to his pension file on HeritageQuest. The pension file listed their children, and hence explained the Missouri connection.

  2. About 1929 my paternal grandparents divorced rather bitterly. My father was age 3 and went with his mother. It is not clear why but my grandmother kept my father from his paternal family for many years. He thought his father was dead but was told later he was very much alive. At age 20 my father re-established a relationship with his father who had remarried by then.

    Years passed and my parents moved from East to West coast and familial ties were lost. My father, an only child, didn’t know that he had several cousins. This last June my sister and I were working on our family tree on and discovered the same family names in another family tree. We were able to make contact with the folks who shared the same great-grandparents and thus discovered all the cousins back in New York.

    My sister and I are going to New York later this month to meet our cousins and re-establish the family ties. How different things could have been for my father, and for us, had the divorce been less bitter, and contact kept up with the paternal side of his family.

  3. good article. Some of my ancestors in late 1900’s went west and most are now deceased and those distant cousins and our Tenn. cousins have lost track of each other. Before they died, I found 2 of my grandmothers youngest brothers still living in Cleburne, Texas and visited both It was wonderful and in less than 6 months,both had passed away. Thanks for the memories

  4. I have been researching my family for quite awhile now. I found in the death reords from one state three members of my distant family all died on the same day 11-18-1918, right at the tme of the great flu epidemic. Or I suppose it could have been a house fire or some other catastrophe that got them all on the same day.

    Rob Steiner

  5. On a visit to the local cemetery I discovered a distant cousin of my grandfather buried in the last space of the family plot with quite a gap between him and my grandparents. I still haven’t discovered who he is, but have found another line of the same surname in which his given name is used a lot. The surname is more common than Jones and Smith so this is going to take me some time, thank goodness I am in contact with a person from that other line who is trying to help me unravel all this. Apparently the rift happened 4 or more generations ago.

  6. My family moved to Missouri in 1857, leaving a farm, friends, relatives and – disaster. They lost their crops to the 1857-8 financial panic that closed banks and rendered crops unsalable. It affected the entire country much as the 1929 panic did and recovery took several years. Again, war changed the economy in 1861. I found information about the panic in newspaper articles in the local library.

  7. I was born and raised in California and had never been east of Phoenix before I moved 1500 miles to Missouri. At that time all I knew of my family was that my dad was born in Oklahoma. I thought I was the first in the family to live in the Ozark region. Years later when I dove head first into family tree research, I found out that my 2nd Great Grandfather and his family had come to this same region of Missouri in the early 1850’s from Virginia. My Great Grandfather enlisted in the Union Army just an hour drive from my house now. My Grandfather, whom I had never known because he died when my father was just a baby, was born just a few counties from where I live now. The first of the family to come to America settled in upstate New York. From there the family “nomad’ed” there way to the west coast. I am constantly trying to figure out what made them move, almost every generation has lived in a different state or territory. So far I have learned through Ancestry’s armed service records that my Great Grandfather probably first saw Oklahoma during the Civil War. He must have fallen in love with the area and shortly before 1895 that is where he moved his family. Recently discovered “cousins” in MO have told me they remember stories of a great uncle that disappeared in the Indian Territory never to be heard from again. This article encourages me to find out just why they moved to Missouri in the first place.

  8. Fractured in the NAME of who?

    My family for some strange reason has family members who changed their Surnames when moving north, when placing their children in school and to hide. Because of the name changes, I am having the hardest time locating any history of these members before the name change.

    My grandmother’s first husband and his three brothers all took their father’s surnames (4 different names) when they left home in Alabama and moved north. My great great great grandmother of North Carolina (Cherokee Indian) changed the spelling of her family’s name. For what reason I don’t know. And my cousins, from Tennessee has their father’s surname on their birth certificates but when their mother enrolled them into school in Ohio, she used her maiden name as the children’s surname. Both parents lived together until death.

    The fractures spoken of in this article were all due to circumstances beyond the families control, but my family historical problems are all of choice. I may never know why each family member did what they did, and actually don’t care. I just want to find all the family members in my history for me as wall as my entire living family. I will keep searching because there is good history on the other side of each break.

  9. Janet,
    I have always used Switchboard but in the last month have had trouble using the reverse directory. Is anyone else having that problem?

    Susan Koelble, CG

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