Your Ancestor’s Disappearing Act, by Juliana Smith

Last week my article focused on some of the frustrations I’ve run into researching ancestors who were a bit on the “casual” side when it came to listing their ages. And from the response we got on the blog from you, it’s very clear we’re all in the same boat when it comes to that particular problem. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories and the explanations you found for age discrepancies! They made for fascinating reading. I particularly enjoyed Barbara’s mother’s reasoning that incorrect ages were “to confuse the angel of death.” Hey, whatever works! (If you missed the last week’s column or want to see what other readers had to say, you can find the article on the blog.)

If there’s one thing worse than an ancestor with flexible birth dates though, it’s one who vanishes for no apparent reason. You’re cruising along finding him consistently where he’s supposed to be, and wham-mo! Suddenly he’s gone without a trace. So how do we pick up the trail again? While there’s no magic remedy, let’s look at some techniques that can help us locate ancestors with a disappearing act.

Make Sure He’s Really Gone
Before you call out the search party, make sure your ancestor is really gone. If you can’t find him in the census, try city directories or alternative sources. He may just be hiding behind a misspelled or mis-transcribed name, or perhaps the enumerator missed him entirely. Until 1920, the majority of Americans lived in what was classified as a rural environment, and in 1850, 84.6 percent of the population was in those rural areas. This meant that in many areas enumerators couldn’t just zip up and down the street gathering names. They had some serious ground to cover, and it’s not a stretch to think that they probably missed some remote residences.

If you haven’t already, create a timeline for the ancestor with an entry for each record you’ve collected, along with his location at that time. (More on creating timelines can be found in the Ancestry Library.) As you track them year by year, you may get a better feel for exactly when they disappeared and maybe even where they might have gone.

Widen Your Horizons
Just a decade ago, your chances of locating an ancestor with wanderlust were much slimmer than they are these days. With the ability to search the entire country–or even abroad–with the click of a mouse, it’s much easier to find ancestors who turn up in unexpected places. Try a global search without including a location, but instead including other factors that will narrow the search to your ancestor–things like age, birthplace, race, and in some cases, even the names of other household members.

In last week’s column I mentioned locating one of the Tobin brothers moving to Washington, D.C. Without the nation-wide index to the census for 1870, I might not have thought to look for him there. But rather than just assuming he had passed away at a young age (not a stretch for a hatter, who as many readers reminded me, was very likely suffering from some degree of mercury poisoning due to the felting process that was used in those days), I cast a wider net and was able to locate him.

Family Stories and Correspondence
Interestingly, an aunt had told us a family story that my direct Tobin ancestor had made a hat for Abraham Lincoln. With his brother taking the family business to Washington, D.C., sometime between 1860 and 1870, it’s possible that there was some truth to that story. Which of course brings us to another route to locating elusive ancestors–family stories and correspondence. Look for even the smallest clues in stories told by older relatives. Even if the story seems a bit far-fetched and might not even be something you can prove, there may be a kernel of truth to the tale. Examine family correspondence for more hints at a location, particularly if you have an envelope or postcard with a postal stamp or return address.

Look at Historical Events
By looking at historical events around the time your ancestor disappeared, you may also find some clues. The promise of gold and silver in the West prompted many to seek their fortunes in California, Alaska, and other points west. Most failed to get rich and either moved on to other gold fields or settled in the new cities that sprang up. Many returned home and resumed their lives where they left off.

Other reasons for leaving may have included a search for work during economic downturns, wars, epidemics, droughts, floods, or other natural disasters. Local histories may shed some light on events that caused an ancestor to leave the area for a short time, or permanently. Epidemics sometimes caused citizens to flee an area until the danger passed. Consider this passage from A History of the City of Cairo, Illinois:

“The ten days beginning with July 9, 1878, were probably the hottest ten successive days in the history of the city…. The first case [of yellow fever] occurred in the south about the first of August. It moved on northward and soon appeared at Natchez, Vicksburg, Memphis, and Hickman, and reached Cairo September 12th. [Two] deaths caused a panic in the city, and the afternoon and evening of that day witnessed the departure of hundreds of people from the city…. It was not until the latter part of October that the people began returning home, and it was not until far into November that all had gotten back.”

Look at Popular Routes
Our ancestors didn’t have the sophisticated transportation systems that we have, but they did typically travel on established routes. You may find reference to popular roadways in local histories too– like the following excerpt I found in the Local History Collection at Ancestry, from History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia by Maud Carter Clement. (Lynchburg, VA: J. P. Bell Co., 1920):

“There was a well known roadway already established, from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, called ‘the Great Road from Pennsylvania to the Yadkin.’ This road was traced on the map of Virginia made by Jefferson and Fry in 1751, and followed the direction of the great war trail of the Iroquois, crossing the Blue Ridge at the Staunton River water gap and passing through Bedford, Franklin and Henry Counties. Along these two roads, Morgan Bryan’s and the Great Road, passed thousands of families from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey, seeking homes in the south. For forty years, from 1735-75, this migration of Germans and Scotch-Irish continued in wave after wave. In one year it was estimated that more than a thousand families entered North Carolina from Pennsylvania by way of Virginia.”

Consult maps that show waterways that your ancestors may have used to travel as well. Look at geographic features like mountains, swampland, and other natural features that may have made a roundabout route more appealing. Ancestry has a large collection of maps and gazetteers that can be helpful in learning more about the areas in which your ancestor lived.

The Library of Congress also has detailed railroad maps that may be useful in identifying what direction your ancestor went during the railroad years. Also, bear in mind that your ancestor may have left for a short time to earn some extra money working on the railroads, particularly during economic downturns.

So What’s Your Story?
Last week we got some great examples from you on age discrepancies. Did you have a “Houdini” ancestor that pulled a disappearing act? How did you solve the mystery? Share your story in the comments section of the blog.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

41 thoughts on “Your Ancestor’s Disappearing Act, by Juliana Smith

  1. “Look for even the smallest clues in stories told by older relatives.” Boy isn’t this the truth!

    There was a little one liner in handwriting at the end of my Great Grandparents 50th wedding announcement that said “(A hand-written note by Viola Lundin – Mr. Lieding was born in Germany in the locality where Martin Luther wrote his thesis.)”

    This solved ALL of my searching! Not only did I find my Great Grandfather’s siblings (who previously had been unnamed) but I have stumbled onto church records of my family back to 1540!!! AND I am actively working on connecting the other part of my family who live in Wisconsin all these years and we didn’t know it!


  2. All I knew about Uncle Charlie, my great-grandfather Berry’s older brother was that he had left the family to be a cowboy. I also knew from a probate record that he was in Glasglow Montana in 1914. I was never able to locate him in the 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930 census records. Finally, I heard from a daughter of Uncle Joe (the next son after Charlie) that he had lived with her family around Altus, Oklahoma and that he died there sometime in the 1920’s. By checking at local funeral homes, I was able to locate Charlie Berry and at the Altus Library located an obituary that told the story about the local cattleman, Charlie Berry who died June 3, 1933. It stated that he had herded cattle, bought and sold cattle in the United States and had spent several years in Canada. I only found Uncle Joe’s daughter’s information by sending a letter to one of Uncle Joe’s grandsons. His son was was the one who provided the information. So, it is good to check to see what all generations of cousins can provide.

  3. Just a quick comment on missing relatives. I recently spent quite a bit of time searching for an uncle. He was a bit of a rogue when it came to census information. On the 1920 census, he changed his father’s place of birth. On the 1930 census, he changed his age, and he again changed his father’s place of birth. Then he went missing. I did find him again on the ancestry site, thanks to another person who was also looking for information on him. The reason he went missing was because he changed the spelling of his last name. Now, that he has been located again, information on his children and their families has also turned up. Try not to get discouraged if a relative goes missing. Chances are you’ll locate who you’re looking for.

  4. According to what has been passed down by the family, my great grandfather Conley in 1879 got into a fight with a man over some land (probably property line) and killed him. He fled the state to avoid proscution and most likley changed his name since I cannot find a trace of him since. They said he went to family in Cincinnati, Ohio but no record has been found. In old family pictures of about that time frame I was able to find the family of 2 Conley children identified in the pictures. The family has the same photos so I know we are relatives. A woman I think was his sister was living in Kentucy at that time just across the river from Cincinnati so he could have went to be with her.I did find a record of his marriage to my great grandmother and his murder indictment along with several arrest warents. he is not on any census records prior to the murder or afterwards.

    The family also passed on a story about a stranger being in their community about 20-30 years later that was lurking around. They thought it was him coming back to check on them.

    In correspondance with the Ohio relatives his name was never mentioned in fear that his whereabouts would be found. The correspondance ended around the 1930’s when I assume the relatives died.


  5. My great-grandparents divorced in 1897. My great-grandfather was given custody of my grandmother and her sister. They lived in Hasting, Sussex, UK. After the divorce my great-grandmother Emily Corner (nee Crump)simply disappears. Divorce papers indicate she had an affair. I cannot find her in the 1901 UK census, cannot find a marriage entry or death entry. Although there are some death entries for an Emily Corner the age differences are just too big. I have tried ordering wedding certificates but the info I supply does not match the UK records. I have tried searching using both her maiden name and married name. Other people working on the Crump family also have no record of her! I guess I will have to wait for the 1911 census to come out! 🙁

  6. My grandfather lied about his age and enlisted in the Army before World War I, changing his last name as part of the process. He maintained the fictions over a period of years: I’ve found at least four birthdates, and two birth places, in his papers and Army records. He married and had a family (several kids) in California between the wars… I’m a descendant of his second family and the California one is something I’m still discovering for the first time in my researching. He even reused names for the kids in the second marriage — very confusing!

    In his case, almost EVERYONE in his family of origin changed their last names (not coordinating what they were choosing) during World War I. Being German in those years in the U.S. was not something you wanted to advertise!

  7. I have a great great great grandfather John Mithcell who was born in Salem City, Salem County, NJ, married there, was on the 1860 census as well with his wife and children, was there for his (my great great grandfather) son’s Robert Aaron Mitchell birth in 1864 but is missing from the 1870 census. His wife( Elizabeth Roswell) and children are on there. I have been through the local papers, death records, church directories and cemeteries and can’t find anything. The local historian did indicate that this was during the gold rush so he could have went west. I have tracked the children in their later years and found his wife’s death but no mention of him.

  8. A couple of years ago I was scratching my head trying to figure out what the blazes happened to my great-great grandmother Nellie Kinsman Lang (b. 1848) after she divorced Frank Lang (Franz Lange) in January 1871. Four years earlier, in December 1866, Nellie had moved from Burr Oak, Michigan to Hastings, Minnesota, babe in arms – that babe being my great-grandmother Jennie Lang. Now, in the biting cold Minnesota winter of 1870-71, the young mother Nellie was on her own, with not one but two small daughters to shelter and feed – Jennie (4) and Nelly (2).

    All I knew was that little Jennie survived to become my great-grandmother. By 1885 she was married to my great-grandfather Cornelius Sullivan and raising a family in the Irish section of Northeast Minneapolis. But what happened to Nellie? After she divorced Frank Lang she seemed to vanish into thin air.

    I had no idea. I also didn’t have a subscription to, and was pretty much of a greenhorn when it came to hard-nosed genealogical research. The only evidence I had were the faded memories of one of Frank’s old neighbors in Minneapolis who thought maybe Frank’s first wife died long ago and her children raised by relatives. This was from an affidavit in Frank’s Civil War pension file. I figured maybe Nellie died in the 1870s or 1880s.

    Then a kind and generous collaborator whom I’d met online via Ancestry’s message boards sent me the 1900 census page from Northeast Minneapolis listing Cornelius, Jennie, and their seven children – and Nellie! Holy smokes! Pouring over the page I tried to absorb the changes of the preceding 30 years. By now she was a widow, Nellie Blowe, head of a household along with her son-in-law Cornelius, sharing the house and working as a cook. Most important, I learned that Nellie in 1900 was living with my then nine year-old grandmother, Genevieve – the woman who six decades later taught me about the sweet taste of applesauce and the meaning of love. To learn that Nellie had helped to raise Grandma – what a treasure it was to learn that!

    Then my brother Tom found a series of entries in the Minneapolis city directories showing Nellie living with Cornelius, under the name Nellie Blowe (or Ella Blowe), widow of Louis.

    Nellie Blowe? It matched the 1900 census. But what kind of a name was that?

    Then, searching’s databases Tom found the unlikeliest of news articles, describing in some detail Nellie Blow’s third marriage — from the Iowa City News of August 29, 1916. To this day I have no idea why this obscure newspaper page sits poised to be lit upon in the database, but I’m sure glad it does!

    Long before finding the Iowa City News article, Tom said he knew in his bones that Nellie had lived to a ripe old age. He was right. With the information in the article we easily found her death certificate. Thus we discovered that she lived until 1927, just a few months shy of her 80th birthday. The next spring Tom found her gravesite, which we reckoned hadn’t been visited in over 70 years. Another real treasure.

    So now the puzzle became figuring out what had happened to Nellie and her girls from winter 1871 to summer 1900. A big blank for nearly three decades — three decades! How did they survive? Where did they live? What did they do?

    With our freshly purchased subscription (by now convinced it was well worth its modest price), we looked and looked for Nellie and her girls. Nothing seemed to fit. In the 1880 census we found an 11 year-old Nelly Lang in Northeast Minneapolis with exactly the right personal data to be our Nellie’s daughter, but living with her “grandparents” in a situation that seemed to make no sense: with one Bailey T. Baldwin, 60 years old and born in Alabama, and his wife Margaret Baldwin, 57, born in Canada.

    Alabama? Canada? There was no Alabama or Canada connection we’d ever heard of. Besides, where was Nelly’s sister Jennie? So we kept digging.

    Then in one of those magical “aha!” moments that all genealogists dream about, I was searching for “Blowe” in the 1860 census when I came across a family in Anoka County (just north of Minneapolis) that included Bailey T. and Margarette Baldwin, three Baldwin children, Ekan Blowe, 15, and Felix Blowe, 13.

    My eyes about popped out of my head. Bailey T. and Margaret Baldwin, living with two boys named Blowe? Bailey from Alabama? Margarette from Canada? The same Bailey and Margaret Baldwin listed as the “grandparents” of 11 year-old Nelly Lang in 1880? Boys of the right age for one of them to grow up and become Nellie’s second husband?


    Thus we discovered a new and unexplored path in the quest to discover something of the shards of Nellie and her girls’ lives after the catastrophe of her marriage to Frank.

    Since then we’ve learned a great deal about Bailey T. Baldwin and his wife Marguerite, from many different sources, many in One Ancestry friend contributed an extraordinary item – a long feature story in the Minneapolis Tribune dated Sunday, July 2, 1899, profiling the remarkable lives of Bailey T. Baldwin and Marguerite Bleau dit Rossignal Baldwin. You see, Marguerite’s first husband had been the brother of Pierre Bottineau, famed in the history of the Upper Midwest as an Indian scout and guide. It turns out that Marguerite and Bailey had led exceptionally eventful lives. These really were some remarkable people. And their lives entwined with Nellie’s in some pretty complicated ways. Family life, as we all know, is rarely simple.

    Whatever happened to Louis Bleau, Nellie’s second husband? That’s been a big mystery. Well, not long ago a dear friend I’d met months earlier via’s message boards sent the answer: Louis Bleau was murdered, stabbed to death at a holiday dance on December 26, 1874 in Centerville, Anoka County, Minnesota. At the time his wife Nellie’s belly was swollen with child. She was probably at the dance with him. She may have seen it happen. What a horrible episode. We look forward to uncovering newspaper stories and, we hope, court records describing the event. But mostly we look forward to finding something that will shed additional light on the life of this still enigmatic character.

    Nellie gave birth to her third and last child, the daughter Louis Bleau never lived to see, in 1875. She named her Louise Blowe. What happened to her remains a mystery. In 1880, at age 5, she was living with her two half-sisters in the home of Bailey’s son William; in 1885, with another French-Canadian family in Northeast Minneapolis, not far from Bailey and Marguerite and their “granddaughter” Nelly Lang. After this Louise seems to vanish, just as Nellie seemed to vanish (in our understanding) a couple of years ago.

    The mysteries endure. But the process of finding answers also endures. And that process of discovery is made exponentially more powerful with tools like’s robust search engines, expansive databases, and easy-to-use message boards. Simply put, this kind of work would not be possible without Every advance we’ve made in understanding Nellie’s life has resulted, directly or indirectly, from Ancestry’s resources. This is not a sales pitch. It’s the truth, pure and simple, from a dogged researcher who’s glad to say he’s cut his genealogical teeth on the wonderful services offered by

    All of this material is explored at greater length on Mike & Tom’s website, Just go to the Documents Home and click on Nellie.

    Thanks for listening and happy hunting!

  9. It’s encouraging to read that so many of you have made progress with the previously unnoticed details. I wish I could say the same. I have been searching for my grandfather Albert Mitchel Henderson for several years. I have come to the conclusion that he had something to hide and thus my grandmother followed suit. She distroyed everything relating to him except the childrens’ birth certificates.His age and birthplace (Va. Ky.) differed on both. All she told me of him was that he was a quiet man, his work took him away alot, he never spoke of his family, he was never in the military, and he died in Chattanooga with pluerisy in 1922. My aunt says she understood that he worked for the railroad sorting mail between Atlanta and Chattanooga. No record of either. No draft registration. Death certificate supposedly destroyed by fire. Not found on the 1920 census in Chattanooga or Atlanta and surrounding counties. No marriage certificate as yet. Recently, I read an article about Jewish heritage and how many people changed their names to Christian names. I’ve initiated some queries. Just this last week I was doing some research for a cousin wanting to know if he had an Indian heritage. That got me to thinking name change again, so another query was made. Hopefully something will come out of this. If not I really don’t know where else to look.

  10. Great article – even worse than disappearing ancestors are “appearing” ancestors. My ggg-grandparents, Peter and Catharine (Reah) Stricker appeared in Greene County, TN in 1823 when they married. One of them already had an almost three year old daughter. They later moved to Missouri and are relatively easy to follow. A trip to Greene County a few years ago revealed that they left no apparent records there other than their marriage. I would love to see suggestions for “appearing” relatives!


  11. Unfortunately I have been unable to find any trace of my great-grandfather, John Caminade. He was a Magistrate judge in Trenton, NJ and just disappeared. Newspapers of the time relate his disappearance. His wife was so angry she changed their last name to Chaminade. It took me awhile to find his relatives, as I had no idea the name was changed. Although he disappeared, we did have a nice reunion with his brothers’ families.

  12. I could not find my great grandfather, Samuel Leslie, on the 1860 census. I thought he was in either Iowa or Ohio. His father still lived in Ohio, Samuel had married in Independence IA in 1856, his wife had died in 1859 at the home of her brother in law, James Leslie of Northfield, OH, leaving an infant. This information came from a newspaper clipping. One day, I decided to check on Heritage Quest using just the first name of Samuel, leaving the last name blank in Summit County, OH. . There he was, listed as Samuel Leisley, with his daughter, Adella F. age 1 and a boy named James W. Thompson, age 11. His brother William was listed in the household above him with his wife Mariah (Maria Thompson) and his children. Their last name was spelled Liesley, but in that listing was also their half sister, Mary Leslie, listed as Mary Leisley! She was also listed with her parents.
    By the 1870 census, Samuel was back in Iowa, remarried with sons, but his daughter was never again found in a census, so I assume she died young. Her mother had died of consumption. Clouding this issue is the fact that there was another Samuel Leslie residing in Summit County, but 10 years older. I have not determined the relationship between the two Samuel Leslie men, but think they were closely related as the first time I found the older Samuel Leslie, he was in the household next to Jacob Leslie, father of my Samuel. Both were born in PA.

  13. I know well about those disappearing relatives. I have several I’m looking for right now. The census years I’m having the most trouble with are the 1900 and 1910 census. My relatives seem to be lost for a census and show back up in the following census. One who really gave me trouble were my great grandmother and her 2nd husband, a Charles Marshall. I knew they were in St. Louis and even about what their address was in the city. I was able to document this by city directory’s, but I still couldn’t find them in the 1930 census. According to family members, they didn’t died until the 1940’s. I tracked all of their married children and started going page by page through census records. That became old fast. Then I remembered my great uncle, Cliff Trigger would have still been home and that my great grandmother also raised a 2nd cousin of mine, a Elmer Todebush. I then used both of the boys names to track down my ggrandmother and her husband. The transcription of the boys were not very good, but close enough, I was able to find the family in St. Louis right where they were supposed to be. It seems they were given the last name of Sharp instead of Marshall. I asked various family members why this might have happened and no one knew why.
    The mystery was finally cleared when I got a copy of Charles Marshall’s death certificate. It seems his full name was
    Charles Sharp Marshall. I don’t know why the census taker used his middle name as his last, but at least it now makes sense to me.
    Most of the disappearing relatives that I have managed to find, have been ones who have children with them and I use different combinations of the kids names and birth dates to find the families. The ones who are by themselves have still eluded me.

  14. I know well about those disappearing relatives. I have several I’m looking for right now. The census years I’m having the most trouble with are the 1900 and 1910 census. My relatives seem to be lost for a census and show back up in the following census. One who really gave me trouble were my great grandmother and her 2nd husband, a Charles Marshall. I knew they were in St. Louis and even about what their address was in the city. I was able to document this by city directory’s, but I still couldn’t find them in the 1930 census. According to family members, they didn’t died until the 1940’s. I tracked all of their married children and started going page by page through census records. That became old fast. Then I remembered my great uncle, Cliff Trigger would have still been home and that my great grandmother also raised a 2nd cousin of mine, a Elmer Todebush. I then used both of the boys names to track down my ggrandmother and her husband. The transcription of the boys were not very good, but close enough, I was able to find the family in St. Louis right where they were supposed to be. It seems they were given the last name of Sharp instead of Marshall. I asked various family members why this might have happened and no one knew why.
    The mystery was finally cleared when I got a copy of Charles Marshall’s death certificate. It seems his full name was
    Charles Sharp Marshall. I don’t know why the census taker used his middle name as his last, but at least it now makes sense to me.
    Most of the disappearing relatives that I have managed to find, have been ones who have children with them and I use different combinations of the kids names and birth dates to find the families. The ones who are by themselves have still eluded me.


  15. Another reason not mentioned for “disappearing” ancestors is the ones who were away in college! Some times college students were NOT to be listed for the census in their college town, but in their original family home. Maybe their family there thought to include them, maybe not. This happened to my aunt.

  16. Along with some amazing successes, I still have two doozies who will probably haunt me til the day I die. Mary E. Prindle who only appears to marry my gr. gr. grandfather in 1865, have three children, and then appears to have deserted him in 1875 when he applies for divorce and custody of the children. The authorities cannot find her and he is granted the divorce and custody. I can find no trace of her anywhere, except for the marriage and divorce records in Connecticut. It’s been said she was born in New York in 1850 but none of the Mary’s I’ve found match up.

    The other doozy is my great grandfather George Patrick Flanagan. He supposedly arrives at Ellis Island in 1898 with his wife just prior to my grandmother’s birth. He states on the 1920 census that he became a US citizen in 1913/1914 time frame. He then returns to Ireland to die in 1922 but there is no passport application for him in Connecticut. I have just about ‘shredded’ the Ellis Island lists looking for him. Even looking for my grandmother just in case she was born on the boat. No luck. I do know he was a chauffeur his entire time in the US. Other than that, nothing.

    The only thing that is good about all of this is that I have honed my investigation and research skills and have been known to track someone else’s family back to the old country in the 1600s in just a few keystrokes and other research. I’ve been just about 100% successful for friends and associates. So maybe that is the legacy that my gr. gr. grandmother gave me.

    OR… my gr. gr. grandfather knocked her off, buried her in the backyard, and then said she was a deserter. Stranger things have happened…

  17. Ms. Smith: I got into Ancestry to see what I could find about my own family. Several years ago, a friend, a retired professor at the University of Wurzburg, told me that an uncle, Theodor Simon, had come to this country as a young man about 1910, had settled in or around Chicago, never married, and had kept in touch with his family until the beginning of WW II, after which they never heard anything else. I may have found his arrival, but have neem totally unsuccessful with censuses, draft registrations, or any thing else for his subsequent life. It would give me [and her] great pleasure if I could find him. Occasionally I give it a try from square 1, but I AM discouraged.

  18. Yet another disappearing ancestor who has yet to be found is my GGrandfather who is purported by family history to be Irish. Yet, he listed his birthplace in the census as Canada. This was later crossed out in census records and listed as England. The immigration records were destroyed in a fire and flood, he never listed a mother’s name on any records and gives his name as James Smith and his father’s name as John Smith. His death certificate says he was born in Canada, but that is just what others had been told by him. Have tried following all family fables and found nothing. Any suggestions welcome as I do not know where else to look.

  19. I have a Great Grand Father who did not want anyone to know where he came from or anything else about him. He, Jessie Edward Carroll, was born th 5th of October 1829 near Macon, Walker County GA. His death certificate states mother and father unknown. He died 10 april 1914 in Cambridge NE. Was married to Charity Jane Bowman on 1 April 1853.

    Can anyone give me some direction as to where to start looking.

  20. One of my goals is to understand and write about the lives of my great-grandparents’ brothers and sisters. That really provides insights about the families. I traced my great-grandmother Clara Hachez Luehr’s younger brother Ferdinand E. Hachez from his birthplace in New Holstein, Wisconsin, to locations in the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, British Columbia and Washington.

    Then, after the 1920 Census, when he was working in Whitman County in Eastern Washington, he disappeared, still single as far as I knew.

    By chance, I recently discovered the Digital Archives of the State of Washington with 73 million entries in an online searchable database. I entered his name — and there was his marriage record as well as his death record. Using his wife’s name in the 1930 Census, I also found names and approximate birthdates for their two children.

    So, every now and then, just browse around the Web for new resources. Someone lost may be found!

  21. Samuel Frost who I think is my 4th great grandfather has not only disappeared, but is a missing link. Have done the timeline b 1766 CT; married Clymena Porter 1788; birth of 1st 2 sons 1789, 1791. Pretty sure of 6 other children all b CT. Found Samuel in census 1800 CT; 1830 NY; 1840 OH; 1850, age 89 and Clymena age 86 with son (Peter) Welton Hannibal Oswego NY. Have deeds re land transactions from 1830 in OH to the last one 1859 in Hannibal. Then he’s gone. A couple of Rootsweb trees have his death in Hartford in 1864, but the folks who posted that info don’t answer requests for documentation. Have even put up DNA in hoping for a match. Lots of great help from but a real “brick wall” re Samuel.

  22. My maternal grandfather killed a man in Sicily in a duel over some stolen horses, the year was 1912 and dueling was against the laws of the new nation of Italy. With the police and the mans family looking for him, he made his way to the nearest seaport . Here he booked passage under his own name ,which was one of the most common names in the region . He however gave the birth date of a cousin , born in the same town , with the same first , middle and last names. Once in America he discarded the false papers and started his new life in a new country. I only discovered this after a visit to the registrar’s office in his home town. and only after long hours of looking in all the wrong places. I finally managed to locate his marriage certificate, which had his true birth date. Armed with this knowledge I was able to track down the names of my Great Grand Parents. Information that had eluded me because of the six year discrepency .

  23. Like others here, I research my ancestral aunts and uncles too. I had a gggranduncle, Soloman Black who disappeared sometime during the 1850s and then re-emerged in the 1870 Census in Washington County, Tennessee. No one researching the family could find him. To deepen the mystery, his wife and children were found living with relatives in Washington County.

    One day while doing a blind search of the 1860 Davidson County, Tennessee Census for another ancestor, Soloman Black was stumbled across as a resident of the state prison. As a benefit of reviewing the microfilm images, the census enumerator had throughtfully written in the margins what the inmates were serving their prison terms for and when imprisoned. Beside of Soloman’s name was “murder” and “1855”.

    This finding lit up all sorts of excitement among us researchers. One sent away to the Tennessee State Archives for the records pertaining to Soloman. He was imprisoned for murdering his father James Black, but was pardoned by the Governor. The reason why Soloman was pardoned is that his mother, Rachel Spring Black actually murdered James one night when he came home drunk and was beating her. Rachel confessed on her death bed and told all where the hidden murder weapon could be found.

    Soloman knew his mother murdered his father, but insisted on pleading guilty to the crime to protect his mother whom he felt had acted in self defense.

    What family history drama! This will occupy several pages in my future book concerning the family.

    So the moral is, don’t be shy about looking at prison enumerations in the Census for a missing relative. If you find someone there, try and review the original image for additional clues!

  24. My cousin, Julius, disappeared from the census. I have him, his brothers, and parents in the 1920 Chicago census. In the 1930 Chicago census are mom,dad, and brothers (Julius is missing). Being that he is in his early 20s, I searched for him alone – NO luck. The brothers (and I think Julius, also) were in the construction business in Chicago. I have used the Chicago city directories and found the business name throughout the years until the brothers all retired to Florida. I even found death info on the SSDI on the brothers, including Julius. BUT Julius is still missing on the 1930 census. Any Hints? Thank you, Trudy

  25. I was trying to find an ancestor called Ziphra Smart, one would think Ziphra would be easy to find. However, that wasn’t the case until quite by chance I found that whoever transcribed the Census for 1841 had written the name as Laffay Sward! A gggrand-daughter had corrected it to Zipporah Smart. So with the new spelling I tried to find her in subsequent census, but again she had disappeared. I decided to try searching for her using her husband’s name of Edward. Initially that didn’t work, until I finally found him in the 1851 census as Edwin and Zipporah now was Zepporek. So using Edwin Smart I finally tracked them through until the 1881 census. And the following is how Ziphra was written as: 1841 Zipporah, 1851 Zepporek, 1861 Zipprooh, 1871 Lepporah, 1881 Nepporah. My next task is to find when she died – I’ve decided to take a breather and let her rest for awhile!

  26. I learned early on, that local cemeteries can provide a lot of details – if you ask the right questions! In my case, I would never have known my paternal grandfather was buried with his mother’s (maiden name) family — until I asked for a listing of all people in that cemetery plot. There he was — the only Winke*lmann among the Her*bens buried there…. Often the cemeteries will provide this internment list at little to no charge (most have the detail on computer these days anyway). Another cemetery listing revealed that 10 – yes, ten! — people were buried in a family grave in Queens NY — no gravestone which made things really difficult! — but did provide the cause/place of death of each for an additional charge. This is how I discovered my father’s great-great-uncle died at 16 years of age, of drowning, in Long Island City NY. He had come over from Germany a few years before, then I lost track of him. This was a common cause of death of immigrants — who would have never learned to swim in their natural-born country.

  27. I too have a lost ancestor, my great grandfather Charles Peyton McKinney was born in 1855 in Warren Ky. In 1880 he lived in Monroe, Missouri and 1900 was living in Franklin, Missouri. According to probate at the time of his younger brother’s death, he died on June 14 1909 in Minnesota, I do not have the county.
    Without having the county, it has been difficult to locate a death record or an obituary.

  28. I have several cases in my family where the children were listed under different first names in consecutive census …often using what I discoverd later were their middle names …. or in the case of immigrants of the late 1800’s they took a name that a more American sound.
    One case in the 1850’s 2 brothers disappeared and were lost for a long time until I went to the court house and found their father’s estate record which included some 1 x 5 scraps of paper noting the receipt of their share and the state it came from …. after that it was easy I just looked at everyone with the same last name and what I knew was their middle name …. which proves again make that trip to the court house it will be worth it.

  29. I’m looking for a distant uncle named Hiram Boyles. He was born in 1865. His father died during the civil war. His mother remarried a few years later but then when his mother died he went to live with his brother at a home where his sister was working.
    In the 1880 census his older brother is listed as “son” while he is listed as “farm hand”. He deserted from the “standing army” and was later convicted of attempted robbery of a stage coach in Ohio. Does anyone know how I can begin to look for any information? Thank you.

  30. I was researching a Foley family in MN for a friend and the family disappeared in 1930. I searched high and low for them but to no avail. Finally, I looked up the exact address of the family home (which they had lived in for years)in 1920 and found the appropriate district in 1930. Then with a printout of the nearby streets from Mapquest, I followed the census takers route as he went from home to home. As it turns out, he went to all the homes on one side of the street (the odd numbers) but failed to return to that block and do the even numbers. So the family wasn’t missing… just missed!

  31. Does anyone have any ideas how to research/locate an Indian ancestor when nothing is known about her. My gr-gr-gr-grandfather, John, had a son, Adam, while he was in Pennsylvania in 1827. No records have been found of marriage or name of Adam’s mother. John moved to Crawford county, Ohio with Adam circa 1840 (maybe mother too?)and extended family. I have found newspaper articles after Adam (gr-gr-grandfather) was grown telling of playing with nearby Indians as a child and the Chief even wanted him to marry his daughter. Again, nothing is ever mentioned about the mother. My gr-grandmother stated that one of her grandparents was an Indian and this lady is the only one we can’t find anything on. I have researched some Indian tribes living nearby in Crawford County but naturally names of women are rarely mentioned and who knows if the couple was even married since no records have been found. It was not uncommon at that time.
    Some of the Indian tribes in Crawford County Ohio had moved from Pennsylvania so I feel like maybe there was some connection. Any ideas? Most current Indian records are after 1850s which do not help me. John married the second? time in 1846 to a lady who had a family and they had another child. No graves or death records have turned up in Crawford County so I am not even sure Ms. Indian came with John and Adam, though Adam’s obit mentions that Adam moved to Crawford County with “his Parents as a toddler.”

  32. I have been tracing my Blackwell ancestors through the Church of England registers at my local record office in England back to the 1500s & I like to have all the generations of a family as this gives an overall picture of their lives.I had been doing quite well considering some of the entries are very faded,barely readable & the early ones are in Latin,a language that I’m not familar with.Then I came across a John Blackwell & a Nicholas Blackwell in the parish register,however all the Johns are accounted for & all the Nicholas’that are left died in infancy,so where did these two Blackwells come from?
    This family left a number of wills(also at the record office) & when I examined them I discovered that a Nicholas Blackwell c1552 had left a will in 1621 that named his son John c1589 as being of another parish,when I looked at this other parish register,I found the baptisms of John’s children,John c1617 & Nicholas c1620.But are these my missing John & Nicholas?Further evidence was found in the will of a Thomas Blackwell in 1656,John c1589 is mentioned as being a brother of Thomas & John’s two sons are named as being of the original parish,they must have moved back there,so the mystery was solved using the wills of the family.
    Now all I’ve got to do is find out where the family vanished to after 1688,which is the last time they are mentioned in the register!

  33. Just a note about disappearing or appearing relatives. I have recently started indexing names from census and death records for Family and after looking at how names are spelled and some of the handwriting the census takers or the person who filled out a death certificate used, it is a wonder that we can find out as much as we do. I can sometimes spend 30 minutes or more trying to decypher one name. Right now I am doing Alabama 1920 census and some of the “unusual” first names are pretty strange. It is just another thing to look at when you are searching for missing ancestors.

  34. I have misplaced a certain brother of my great great grandfather. It seems he is alive and well in 1880, your normal 19th century teenager, and then he is gone. His mother, sister and brothers all moved to Oklahoma over the next ten years, but there is no mention of him in any census in Oklahoma. I know he had to still be alive in 1917 because my great great grandfather’s obit says his brothers are still alive and kicking somewhere in the world. But Joseph has remained MIA. It is very frustrating, especially since I have a picture in an old albulm of my great grandma that says “Uncle Joe” on it. This seems to be my missing man, but no clues as to where he was at the time. But I shall not give up on him, some day I will find him and reunite him in my family tree!

  35. George Peter Smith (my great-grandfather) was the most illusive of my ancestors. When I started this search, all I knew was that he was born between 1853-1858 in New York and that he died by his own hand in 1896 (according to the family bible). Talk about disappearing acts – he married my great-grandmother in Washington, DC one month after the 1880 Census was taken. I can suggest delicately that they “knew” each other for at least two months prior. So, logic would place him in Washington DC for the census. Do you think I could find him there? No, I could not. And believe me, I’ve looked and looked and looked.

    I was able to follow him through DC city directories for a time after the marriage. The only thing I got out of that (other than addresses) was that he was a “Jr” who sold bottling supplies. I can’t tell you how many times I cursed the fire that destroyed the 1890 Census! At least, it might have helped me nail down his age more precisely.

    I searched NYC Censuses from 1860-1870, looking for a family with a father & son both named George. I thought I remembered my grandmother mentioning the name “Schmidt”, so I felt safe eliminating the non-German Smiths. But still, there were just too many.

    Then, after 1894, he just disappeared from the DC directories. Flash forward to 1900. I found my widowed g-grandmother living in Phoebus, Virginia (now a part of Hampton), with their five children. She had family there, so it made sense that she went there. I assumed (rightfully so, I thought) that George must have died either in DC or Virginia. I searched the DC Archives for a death certificate. I looked at every Smith who died between 1894-1900. That’s a lot of Smiths. Nothing. I searched the death register for Elizabeth City County, Virginia (where Phoebus is located). Nothing.

    I was beginning to consider other scenarios. Maybe he was committed to an asylum or just ran off. When I was ready to give up (well, almost), a researcher contacted me about a post I placed on the message boards. She put a new idea into my head. Look in New York City. Now, this was completely counter-intuitive. Although George was supposed to have been born in NYC, I could find no reason for the family to be there at that time. But in fact, that is exactly where they were.

    After some searching of NY City databases, I located an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle entitled “Who Was This Stranger? He Killed Himself Last Night In A Fulton Street Saloon.” That was followed two days later by an article identifying him and stating where he lived and for whom he worked. I was taunted by the fact that his wife AND SISTER identified his body. But, of course, the sister was not named. Armed with this new information, I ordered his death certificate and learned that his parents were indeed German. I also learned where he was buried. I was heady with all this knowledge. I thought the floodgates would open and I would find it all. But alas, I was at another dead end. The cemetery informed me that he was buried in an unmarked grave in a family plot with a bunch of non-Smiths. I spent many hours researching these people, only to conclude there was no relation. My imagination went to work again. Maybe his family disowned him because he took his own life?

    Many months passed. Again, I was about ready to give up when I got a helping hand from a couple of kind researchers out there on the Internet. Never let it be said that siblings and their spouses are of no value. While I was searching for information about my great aunt’s husband (just filling in some blanks in the file), I found an intriguing post that contained enough new information to jolt me back to the Smith search. Through this post, I met a second cousin who grew up mere miles from me. She had a genealogy report prepared in the 1970s by a distant cousin (now deceased) that put a great big hole in that brick wall I’d been hitting for so long. All of a sudden, I had the names of my great-grandfather’s siblings, his parents, and even some pictures of them.

    I discovered that there was a family plot two spaces over from that unmarked grave. I visited the plot, only to find that my great-grandfather was NOT buried with a bunch of strangers, NOT disowned by his family. He was buried with his parents and two brothers… and his grave IS marked. Apparently, the cemetery personnel misread the plot number. Imagine that!

    I still have work to do. But it’s been an amazing journey so far…

  36. I also have a “Houdini” ancestor who disappeared, my gr-gr-gr-grandfather, John F. Cooper, born in Germany, living in Philadelphia with his father in 1790, an officer in the War of 1812, living in Pittsburg in 1820 as shown in the US Census, moving to Fairfield County, Ohio, shortly thereafter, with two children born there in 1822 and 1825, respectively. Poof! He disappears and has not been found in land, military, church, directory, death, cemetery, probate or other county records, the Pennsylvania Archives or National Archives! He reportedly died in 1828 in Fairfield county as remembered by his son, who was 15 at the time. Thinking he might have confused the county, searches of nearby Franklin and Fayette counties have not found him either. Any suggestions for next steps would be most appreciated!

  37. Comment #19 above caught my eye, where LON D. CARROLL was looking for his ancestor, Jessie Edward Carroll, born 5th of October 1829 near Macon, Walker County GA. Walker County is in north west GA, not at all near city of Macon(Bibb County) or Macon County, which is in western, middle GA. I did several wild card searches on and found the following. (If you do a wild card search “Car*l” this will give Carol, Carroll, Carell, Carl, etc).

    1850 Walker, Georgia, page 432
    Franklin Caroll-age 45
    wife and other children
    Jessey E. Caroll-age 20 (index shows name as Josey Caroll)

    1860 Independence, Arkansas, page 275
    Jesse E Carroll-age 31, born GA
    Charity-age 22
    4 children
    Nancy A Bowman-age 45

    1870 Hamilton, Indiana, page 186
    Jesse E. Carl, age 41, born GA
    Charity Carl-31, born Indiana
    Melvin Carl-16, GA
    Leroy, Martha-born GA
    Margaret-born Arkansas
    William, Leuticia-born Indiana

    1880 Hamilton, Indiana, page 372
    Jesse E. Carroll-50, born GA
    Charity-40, born Indiana
    Melvin, Leroy-born GA
    William, Lennita(?)-born Indiana

    1900 Frontier, Nebraska
    JE Carroll-born 1829, GA
    Charity-born 1838, Indiana
    Leroy F-1855, GA

    1910 Frontier, Nebraska
    Jesse E Carroll-85, GA
    Charity-71, Indiana
    Leroy F-54, GA

    I am assuming that Franklin Carroll, from 1850 Walker, GA census is father of Jesse Carroll. In 1860 Franklin Carroll is in Whitfield County, GA. Whitfield County is next to Walker County.

  38. Great article, as was last week’s! Now, how about a disappearing, reappearing, then disappearing again ancestor–as in MY case? I know that my paternal great-grandmother arrived in New York in 1897, because this was given on the 1900
    US Census. Still and all, I can’t find her on any passenger manifests arriving in New York for that year, or any other surrounding year. And yet I’ve tried every surname variation, first name variation, possible misspellings, and soundex.

    How frustrating, considering that I’ve located every other ancestor and their siblings, although some of them took years to find due to incorrect spellings of surnames, or first names hitherto unknown to me. After that, however, she DID reappear–in the aforementioned 1900 US Census, the 1905 NY State Census, and then again in the 1910 US Census. But that’s when she disappeared again, and this time for good. I know she lived in New York City up until her death in 1929–and I ALSO know her street address there–but she STILL could not be found there (or anywhere else) in any subsequent censuses. This is totally confusing, as it just doesn’t make any sense–or, in this case, CENSUS!

    She died in late 1929. That, too, is unfortunate: even though she was at least 88, had she lived just another six months, she might have shown up in the 1930 US Census. How inconsiderate of her NOT to have thought of that!! So, what’s a frustrated researcher like myself going to do next with this elusive ancestor? Juliana Smith, if you’ve read this, maybe you can offer a suggestion or two as to why I’ve had so many problems with my great-grandmother….please(?)

  39. Lost — the Charles Floyd Walker family — Charles b Nov 1879; Cora Margaret, his wife, b Sep 1879, daughters Geneva Lucille b 1900 and Ruth Pauline b 1905. All born in Grant County, Indiana. I have found everybody in all but the 1910 Indiana census. Using possible spellings, nicknames, ages, 1st name as last name, etc., they have vanished into outer space. Writings of my mom, give info as to living in Grant Co. at that time. Other relatives are there. I have gone page by page through the complete? Indiana 1910 census. Now what?? Like Mr. Kern above (#38)what to do?? I truly believe pages are missing from 1910 Indiana census. Any suggestions besides those mentioned in your informative article, will be well received by me and probably others. Thank you.

  40. I am looking for my grandfather, Peter Paul Kuehn. He went by the name Paul. He was born in 1883 and was married, had 15 children. In the 1930’s when the drouth came, he left to find work where he could. He would come back and leave again. He left and was not seen again in 1939. His sister knew where he was but would never tell. I have looked for him in the MN obits but have not found him. I don’t know where else to look for him. Any suggestions.

  41. This is in response to “Jane”, response #36 above: you discussed your “Houdini ancestor”, and how he supposedly died in 1828, after having last been recorded in 1825 in Fairfield County, Ohio. Since 1828 was only three years after 1825, is it possible he became ill in those few intervening years and was hospitalized somewhere else in Ohio–or perhaps, even, in a neighboring state? Maybe he had tuberculosis, or something else serious enough that led to his early demise(?) I would therefore suggest that you begin checking hospital archives in and around that area, and also in states nearby. You might then locate that death record which you so enthusiastically seek!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *