How NOT Finding an Ancestor May Actually Help Your Research

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How NOT Finding an Ancestor May Actually Help Your Research

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Thank you to Rachel Silverman with AncestorCloud for this helpful article.

Family history research is about finding the clues people have left behind and following the path where they lead. But what happens when a research path ultimately comes up empty?

This is what genealogists call a negative search result, but don’t be fooled by the name; this kind of information is just as valuable as unearthing genealogy gold. Think about it this way: If you find a new record, you learn what is. If you don’t find anything, you learn what is not…and so much more.

For example:

I’m searching for my great-great uncle, who—according to family lore—moved from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri in 1909. The problem is that I can’t find him there; he’s neither in the 1910 US Census for St. Louis County, nor in the city’s 1910-1911 name directory.

At this point, you might be tempted to say that I’ve hit a roadblock. But even though I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for, I still learned something: If my great-great uncle is nowhere to be found in St. Louis in 1910, the account I have about his relocation is probably not entirely accurate. That being said, I can’t completely discount my family’s story.


A word to the wise: Even if you don’t initially find definitive proof of a certain, accepted narrative, there’s still a chance that parts of the tale—if not all of it—could be true. Yes, it’s perfectly logical to take old family stories with a grain of salt; memories fade, persons, places, and years get mixed up, and time eventually takes its toll on the truth. But until and unless you find real, conflicting evidence to every aspect of a story (person, place, year, etc), it’s best not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Back to my wandering uncle:

In addition to causing me to reevaluate the original story, my negative search results have opened up several new research paths for me.

1. What if he didn’t move at all? I’ll continue my search for him in his last known place of residence.

    • In this instance, my first resource will be the 1910 US Census in New York City. If he is absent from his previous address or from his family unit, I’ll double-check the appropriate 1909 and 1910 city directories, just to cover all my bases. If all else fails, I’ll move on to the 1915 New York State Census.

2. What if he actually did leave New York in 1909, but got waylaid on his way to St. Louis? I’ll expand my 1910 search to include states neighboring Missouri.

    • Back to the 1910 US Census. Once I determine his whereabouts in 1910, I can use the local city directory—if it is available—to backtrack and ultimately figure out when he arrived in that location.

3. What if he changed his name along the way? Shortened it? Chose a new, more-common spelling?

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4. What if he did make it to St. Louis in 1909, but just moved in with relatives who were already living there? I’ll search for his close family members whom I know were there in 1910 and/or 1920, just in case his surname is different on the US census.

    • Again with the census! Just like in #2, if I find him living with relatives in St. Louis, I’ll use the use the local city directory to figure out when he may have arrived there.
    • I’m also going to consider every angle of this relocation and try to imagine why my great-great uncle uprooted himself. Did he just want to get out of the dirty, crowded city? Reunite with family members? Might he have been in trouble with the law? In any case, it’s possible that he may have used his relatives’ surname in a directory or on the 1918 WWI Draft Card – so I’ll look for him under that name, too.

As you can see, this one “empty” research path has erupted in all kinds of other avenues for finding the information I seek.

The lesson here is that all research paths have something to teach us. Instead of acting as a dead end, negative search results have the potential to rule out previously held assumptions, help us branch out and consider other possibilities, and finally lead us to the definitive truth about our family history.

So with that, happy researching! And remember, as Dr. Seuss might have said, “We learn a lot when we find out what is not!

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Image: Stuart V. Tulloss, Chief of the Division of Investigation of the Comptrollers Office, 1938, Library of Congress

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  • October 24, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    We have been hunting info on my Great grandfather. 7years looking in Gadsden County Florida (quincy) born in S. Carolina then moved to Quincy.
    One of them was William Cooper’s father William Lewis, Louis.,Luis. Born in 1860, Can’t tie the 2 together. Help!!! I’ve wanted to search other places like N. Carolina,Tenneessee,..
    Some of the family is from Decatur, Ga.,Abbeyville,Al., but I get some kinda mixed up after a few min.. 1.William Cooper
    2. William Lewis, Louis, Luis etc. B:1860

  • October 3, 2015 at 9:21 am

    Excellent explanation! I wanted to let you know that this post is included in my NoteWorthy Reads #22: Enjoy your weekend!

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