When No Records Exist - Ten Strategies to Help You Find a Missing Ancestor

When No Records Exist: Ten Strategies to Help You Find a “Missing” Ancestor

By Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG®

Do you have that one ancestor, perhaps two, who just seems to be a ghost? Does it seem as though they lived without a trace? No matter how hard you try to locate birth records or marriage records, this ancestor appears to have left absolutely no trail for you to follow? Some genealogists might consider these brick walls. I view them as mysteries. Nevertheless, how do we break through when no records seem to exist?

We must start by looking at the problem with a critical eye. Perhaps we cannot see the forest for the trees because we are just too close to the problem. Perhaps it’s not entirely true that our ancestor left behind no records. By taking a hard look at our research process, the solution to our problem may reveal itself. In fact, we may see improvements in every branch of our family tree research – so let’s look at some proven strategies you can put to work right away.

Strategy #1 – Get it Together

Before you begin to research any ancestor, ask yourself, “Am I organized?” If the answer is “No.” Then it is time to start. Without organization, you may simply be overlooking information about your ancestor. You’ll never find it if it’s lost in the mess.

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First, organize all physical papers into surname folders. Do the same for your digital files. I file by ancestor, applying the Ahnentafel numbering system, especially to my digital records.

If you want to start smaller, organize one ancestor at a time, starting with your elusive ancestor first. Locate every single document and image for your mystery ancestor. Lay everything out on a large table or on your desktop. Review every document. Look for gaps in the timeline of their life. Identify record types that have yet to be researched. I can guarantee that at least one answer will open up to you.

If you need help with organization or a jumping-off point, read 6 Steps to Organize for Photos and Heirlooms or Master Genealogy Organization with Evernote. Family History Daily also has a brand new online organization course coming soon. Sign up here.

Strategy #2 – Mine Your Evidence

Are you just like me when it comes to record searches? Do you look for a death certificate to identify an ancestor’s date of death? Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not always the best approach. Instead, you should examine every possible source with a fine-tooth comb. Do not simply look for one answer to one question, locate every shred of information that the source has to offer. Every single solitary shred.

On a simple death certificate, this would include:

Name of deceasedHis/her usual addressDate of deathPlace of death
Marital statusGenderColor or raceUsual occupation
AgeDate of birthBirthplaceCitizenship
Father’s nameFather’s birthplaceMother’s nameMother’s maiden name
Mother’s birthplaceCause of deathSecondary causeContributory factors
Autopsy performed?Was this an accident?Where was the accident?Social security number
Military experienceInformantName of physicianName of undertaker
Burial placeBurial dateLicense numberRegistration number

Isn’t that crazy? I found 32 items, and I didn’t include all that I found. You may not need all of these answers now, but you will later. By mining the source fully for information, you save time and learn so much more. When it comes to sources, my motto has always been “Leave no stone unturned.” Therefore, collect every stone you find!

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Strategy #3 – Find Their People

Too many genealogists research one ancestor at a time. I like to call this “Linear Genealogy.” This methodology will simply not break through brick walls. A better choice to use what is known as “Cluster Genealogy.” Instead of researching one ancestor at a time, research his or her entire family. Research their neighbors, or who they experienced life with.

I can honestly say that I found so many more records for Thomas Morgan when I began researching him with Lewis Essender. These two lived together, worked together, even got arrested together. Where I found records for Lewis, I often found information about Thomas – and Lewis’s surname is a wonderfully unique one to research!

Where you have the elusive female ancestor, use her male siblings as your record finder. Women’s names change. They don’t get written about in the newspaper as often as their brothers. Use this “Male Record Finder” method to your advantage and you may find that Last Will & Testament in which Francis Wooden left a parcel of land to his beloved sister, Rebecca. Francis might even include her married name and her children, too. You’ll be amazed by all that you find!

Never underestimate the power of the family. There is a reason that a quality home is built with four sturdy walls, and not one. Allow the walls to support one another. Always include the family structure in your research methodology. One piece of conflicting evidence can topple a one-walled home, but struggles to tear down multiple walls built with solid connections.

Read: Are You Making the Direct-Line Mistake in Your Family Tree for More Help

Strategy #4 – Stop Looking for Records That Don’t Exist

Simply stated: Stop looking for civil records before they existed. When you are researching civil birth records, for example, you must be aware that they are a relatively modern invention. Many U.S. states and countries did not register civil births in 1820, for instance. Therefore, stop trying to locate records that never existed.

Instead, create a list of record dates for the region in which you are researching.  Include birth, death, and marriage. Do this for every region as your research grows. Identify substitute records that may offer clues to birthdates, such as baptisms. Marriages may also shed light on your ancestor’s birth, if you know the age of consent in the region you are researching.

Strategy #5 – Timeline It!

This is one of my favorite techniques to use for my “I Left No Record Behind” ancestors. Create a timeline from birth to death. Include information about specific places your ancestor lived. Add historical context, on national and local levels.

Include wars, famines, floods, anything that explains missing records and activities they would have experienced. Add every single thing you know about their lives as well (using all of those documents you examined earlier). Do you see any gaps in your research? Uh-oh! Now you can target exactly what you still need to find. Craft your genealogical question (see our courses for help) and get to work!

Strategy #6 – You Can Be Certain of Only Death and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” With this in mind, have you explored all death and tax record groups for your ancestral research? At certain times in history, these may be some of the only records that you might find.

When I am researching my Maryland ancestors from the American Revolution to the War of 1812, the only records that I might find include tax, probate and land. That’s it, my friends. Therefore, I need to get brave and visit the Maryland State Archives. It can be a daunting place, especially if you rarely visit.

If you’re truly lost and need assistance about potential record groups for a specific time in history, ask an archivist. They have a strong understanding of which records are available at the repository you are visiting.

Strategy #7 – Get Familiar With Substitutes

In a world with so much record loss, we simply must identify substitutes. For example, during the Easter Rising in Ireland in April 1916, many, many records were lost forever, especially census records. Therefore, researchers must substitute other records in their place, attempting to close gaps in research.

Locate records appropriate to the place and time. Identify unique records that were created. Be open to bibles, newspaper records, land records, licenses and maps.

Landholder maps may help you locate a specific place for your ancestor. Many city researchers love to employ Sanborn Maps, which were created for fire insurance purposes. During times of upheaval, your ancestor’s name may be among a list of rebels in a news story. Or perhaps your ancestor applied for a dog license every year. Substitutes require you to get creative.

Strategy #8 – Turn to DNA

When you are struggling to locate physical records, it may be time to explore DNA research. DNA will introduce you to hundreds of your cousins who are interested in genealogy, too. They have built their own trees from records. Allow these connections to help solve your brick walls.

Correlate your DNA Matches to create family groups. Connect these matches to one of your four grandparents. Before you know it, you will begin to gather evidence for your mystery ancestor. If DNA scares you a bit, read up on it. Watch a webinar. Listen to a podcast. Or read this article on testing. Then move into this article about Ancestry’s Thrulines or MyHeritage’s DNA tools.

Strategy # 9 – Stare at Photos

Do you have that huge box of photos from your maternal aunt squirreled away in the closet? Let’s take it out and have some fun! Grab your maternal line pedigree chart. Lay all the photos out on a huge table. Group photos of similar events and people.

Read the backs to identify names. Organize the entire box, checking your pedigree chart to help you. Look at the style of clothes. Categorize the time of year. Photos are records, too! Use them to help you solve your genealogical problems.

For help scanning you can read this guide.

Strategy # 10 – Challenge Yourself

One of the most important methods of genealogy is exhaustive research (part of the all important Genealogical Proof Standard). What is it and how do we know when we’ve done it? Well, if you’ve attempted 1 to 9 from the list above, you’re getting there. You will know it when you have at least two pieces of independent evidence for each link in your family.

Hypothetically, to prove that my father is indeed my father, I need at least two evidential records. My birth certificate is a strong beginning. When correlated to his will, in which I am named as his daughter, I now have two independent records that prove that relationship.

As you go farther back in time, these direct records get harder to come by so it may take several indirect records to prove that relationship. That is why you must exhaust your sources and always dig deeper, get creative and be patient when exploring hard to find ancestors. Good luck!

Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG® practices in Maryland. She is the owner of Be Rooted Genealogy, where she specializes in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ireland, and Scotland research.

9 thoughts on “When No Records Exist: Ten Strategies to Help You Find a “Missing” Ancestor”

  1. While researching and creating a tree for a friend, the family name is “Kelly”. They were all named Peter and wives are Mary and came from Ireland… how do I narrow down that can of worms? LOL

    My brick wall begins in colonial America. It starts with those censuses where they would just record the name of the head of household, and tick marks for how many males between 0-5, males between 6-10, etc. I believe I’ve found my guy because of the year listed and the number of kids he had during that year. Also, these people, as time goes by, all list their place of birth as “Cincinnatus, NY”. There are no records of any Joneses living there in that time. The name Jones doesn’t help either! 🙂 So, my guy has a father SOMEWHERE, but I haven’t found him yet. Since his son (my guy) was named Peter William Jones, I go with the name clue. William. Suffice to say, there were quite a few “William” men in Colonial America.

  2. My father mentioned the exact year of the deed in his Local Court Decision that it was his ancestor on the deed of 1886 and shrine also before civilization.

  3. I am doing a research on my ancestor that have no record at all but he is a signatory on a deed.

  4. Okay, but… What about ancestors that have no names? I refer to the situation that happens when one’s ancestor isn’t one’s biological ancestor, so no records exist because no records ever made… DNA matches can be used if it’s a recent ancestor (stronger matches, more records, etc.), but the further back someone had someone without being formally with someone and… Well, how to crack that wall?

  5. My biggest issue involves ancestors with the same names on records which do not make it clear which generation is being documented. In one line of my ancestors, I have three generations with the same first and last name. Thus, a land purchase may be for any one of the generations. Indeed, the purchase may have been made by a grandfather for a grandson. To assume the grandfather lived on the property would be a mistake.

  6. History of my great great grand father Isaac Vosburgh ends with his birth record being 1761. Can not find his father or mother or when they came to the US. from the Netherlands.

  7. Not clear if I can get the Check List without subscribing to the Newsletter (I already get so much).

  8. I have a 5th great grandfather born in Ireland in 1748. He enlisted in the Rev war in 1777. I can’t find anything about him between those dates. Even Salt Lake city Utah found no info for me. So yes I have a brick wall. I have lots of info from 1777 on

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