Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Searching for Distant Living Cousins is Hard

I'm sure that all of you know this, but I'm just finding out how hard it is to search for "Distant Living Cousins." These are the 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc. cousins who share a set of 3rd, 4th or 5th great-grandparents with you. In general, you don't know who they are or where they live.

My observation is that most people know the names and often the locations of their first cousins, but relatively few know anything about or are in contact with their second cousins, and it is rare to find people in contact with their third or more distant cousins (well, except for genealogists, of course - we tend to find very distant cousins). Many families are spread all over the country and the world, and many families have complex relationships, and therefore have less contact with their aunts, uncles and cousins.

Why should we, as genealogists and family historians, search for these folks? I have two major responses:

* These people may have family pictures, family Bibles, family letters and other records that relate to your ancestral families. Did your family send letters to people? Where might they be? If they sent them to a cousin, then the cousin, or their descendants, may have them. Certainly, your ancestor doesn't have them, unless they were returned or they made a rough draft of their letters.

* Some of these family lines may be able to help with genetic genealogy issues - a patrilineal line back to a common ancestor may be very helpful in proving ancestry in that surname by providing a Y-DNA match to other people with the surname.

Of course, if you are able to find these distant cousins, and are able to make contact with them, you still have the problem of convincing them to send copies of their ephemera, photos and Bibles to you. But you can't contact them if you can't find them, right? So we have to try.

How can you find these distant cousins? It is a lot easier now than it used to be before the Internet. The process I'm using is to:

* Use online resources to define the families of distant cousins into the 1930s or 1940s - using the vital records, census records, military records, newspaper records (e.g., historical newspapers), cemetery records, Social Security Death Index, City Directories, town and county history books, the USGenWeb county sites, the WorldConnect, Ancestry and FamilySearch tree databases, Google and other search engines, etc.

* To find people after the 1930s and 1940s, I search the Social Security Death Index, City directories, online current newspapers, online obituary sites, cemetery records, etc.

* To find people living in the last 10 years, I use the Ancestry People Finder databases, online telephone books at www.411.com and www.pipl.com, public records sites (probates, deeds, etc.), Google their names and locations, and use Classmates.com and detective sites like Intelius.com, etc.

* Search the surname and locality message boards and mailing lists for other researchers who might have information about my distant families, or might be willing to search for them in specific localities.

* Enter the families you find into my genealogy database, along with facts found, research notes and source notes. I usually make a descendants genealogy report to define the families.

Ancestry has an article by Kip Sperry about finding living people here. Kimberly Powell at the About:Genealogy site has an article here.

The census records are by far the most useful records for defining families, but they run out in 1930, which is several generations ago. It is not unusual for small children in the families in 1930 to be living, but finding them is a challenge, and finding their progeny is a bigger challenge.

It is a lot easier to do these searches in states that have vital records available online - like California and Texas. Doing research in states without online vital records - like Pennsylvania and New York - is really hard, especially for common surnames. Sometimes you get a break by finding an older distant cousin in the SSDI, and then find an obituary that lists living relatives, and you can then try to contact those people.

The problem is, of course, you are trying to work forward in time, instead of backward in time. Without the memories or papers of our parents and grandparents, this is a much more difficult task.

I'm going to post genealogy reports with some of my searches for distant cousins in the next few weeks - my hope is that there will be somebody on the Internet who is Googling their name, their parents names or their grandparents names and are motivated to make contact with me via email. I'm going to try to not list living people in my posts for privacy reasons, and I'm only going to use publicly available records in my searches.

Have you searched for these distant cousins? What resources or methodologies have you used?


Thomas MacEntee said...


One recent success for me has been signing up with Facebook. Although I have never been a big fan of "social networking", I was contacted by unknown first cousins in Post Falls, Idaho last month. We've since spent hours on the phone and in email exchanging info and photos.

I took the chance and signed up. While much of the stuff (quizes, games, trivia, graffiti walls, bumper stickers) is fluff to me, I also found another first cousin back home about 10 miles from where I grew up.

Some advice on Facebook:

- a much younger crowd tends to use it, and they use it quite well. Don't be intimidated by this.

- when contacting anyone, especially someone of high school age (like my unknown cousin Liza in New York), use your basic common sense. I made sure that she knew who I was, how I was related and was not some perv or weirdo trying to meet up with a teenage girl

Facebook allows you to do some great surname searches. I've notice that many of the Hennebergs (my maternal grandmother's maiden name) are in Denmark, right over the border from Germany.

Shaz said...

I posted a query on the Haskin GenForum asking for info on a certain female second cousin. I knew her married name from her father's obituary. Three weeks later her son contacted me with his mother's e-mail. We made contact, exchanged some info, but she is clearly not that interested.

Other distant cousins 3rd to 16th have been found from entries on GeneaNet, Polish mailing lists and Rootswebs' WorldConnect.

I don't find it that difficult.....