Last week my article focused on some of the frustrations Iâ€™ve run into researching ancestors who were a bit on the â€œcasualâ€ side when it came to listing their ages. And from the response we got on the blog from you, itâ€™s very clear weâ€™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 Barbaraâ€™s motherâ€™s reasoning that incorrect ages were â€œto confuse the angel of death.â€ Hey, whatever works! (If you missed the last weekâ€™s column or want to see what other readers had to say, you can find the article on the blog.)
If thereâ€™s one thing worse than an ancestor with flexible birth dates though, itâ€™s one who vanishes for no apparent reason. Youâ€™re cruising along finding him consistently where heâ€™s supposed to be, and wham-mo! Suddenly heâ€™s gone without a trace. So how do we pick up the trail again? While thereâ€™s no magic remedy, letâ€™s look at some techniques that can help us locate ancestors with a disappearing act.
Make Sure Heâ€™s Really Gone
Before you call out the search party, make sure your ancestor is really gone. If you canâ€™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 couldnâ€™t just zip up and down the street gathering names. They had some serious ground to cover, and itâ€™s not a stretch to think that they probably missed some remote residences.
If you havenâ€™t already, create a timeline for the ancestor with an entry for each record youâ€™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, itâ€™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 weekâ€™s columnÂ 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, itâ€™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 didnâ€™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.Â 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 Whatâ€™s Your Story?
Last week we got some great examples from you on age discrepancies. Did you have a â€œHoudiniâ€ ancestor that pulled a disappearing act? How did you solve the mystery? Share your story in the comments section of the blog.
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.