Friday, September 23, 2011

Dear Randy: " I've searched everywhere for my ancestor. What Now?"

My society colleague "Mary" (not her real name) emailed me recently, saying:

 "Dear Randy:  I've searched everywhere for my ancestor.  What else can I do?  He seems to have dropped out of the sky into the 1850 census with no known parents." 

Dear Mary:  Your problem is a common one for researchers for ancestors in the first half of the 19th century.  I have several similar "brick wall" problems myself that just don't seem to be possible to solve. 

We discussed, via email, your particular problem, and you noted that you have scoured the online databases and family trees at,,,,, Google Books, and the Internet Archive for information about your ancestor in the places that he lived in the 1850 census and afterwards.

Here are the places that I would search next:

1)  Check the Library Catalog ( for the records that are on microfilm or microfiche for the PLACE (state and county and town) where your ancestor resided.  You should pay close attention to the vital, church, land, probate and tax records.  Order the microfilms/microfiches and search them for your ancestor and others of the same surname (or variants). 

2)  Check the Library Catalog ( for the records that are either on the shelf in Salt Lake City or that are on microfilm or microfiche for your ancestor's SURNAME, including variations in surname spelling.  Order the microfilms/microfiches that might have your ancestor in them and search them.  Put any on-the-shelf books at the Family History Library in SLC on a to-do list and travel to Salt Lake City if necessary.

3)  Contact the genealogical and/or historical societies for the state, county and town (if extant) by postal mail, email or telephone, and determine if they have family files (sometimes called "vertical files") for your ancestor's surname, and determine if they will copy them and send them to you (for a fee).  Inquire as to what other records they might have (indexed or unindexed) that you can search (or have searched for you).

4)  Search the holdings of the County or State Archives in the locations where your ancestor lived.  State Archives often have a wealth of material that is not indexed and not digitized.  State Archives collect records from state governments, and often from county or city governments withing the state. You will probably have to travel to the Archive location (or hire someone to do it) kin order to access these records, but they may contain the absolute unique records that you need to solve your problem.    Start at to find the state archive of interest, then search their catalog. 

5)  State and regional libraries collect items that pertain to their state and its inhabitants - like family history books, city and county books, maps, manuscripts, newspapers, paper collections, etc.  Search for the name and location for these repositories on the state or county pages.  Use the online catalog for each library to search for records of interest.  Many manuscript collections at repositories are listed in NUCMC (National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections).

6)  Search the U.S. National Archives for military service and pension records, immigration and emigration records, citizenship records, federal government legislative, employment and court records, land records, and much more in their archival collections.  Start at  Very few of these records are indexed or digitized. 

7)  Historical newspapers may be available for your location or region of interest.  Check the U.S. NewspaperDirectory, 1690 to Present ( for the names of newspapers published in your location, and the years covered.  Then check the Online Historical Newspapers Website (, the Historical Newspapers Online site (, and local, regional and state libraries to determine if they have been digitized or indexed.  

All of these resources may contain original source records that may have information about your ancestral families. 

As most of us know and understand, the online historical record collections are a great benefit to our research, but not all records are digitized as images, and not all historical record images have been indexed.  In fact, some "experts" think that 3% (or less) of "all" genealogy records are digitized or indexed, and some think that the number is even smaller! 

The conclusion that can be drawn from that statistic is that there is a wealth of  genealogy and family history material available only in libraries, archives, homes and businesses that researchers should try to access and review in their ancestral search.

What would you add to my list above?  I tried to make it fairly general so that readers could apply it to their own research "brick wall" problems.  Please make comments on online and traditional resources. 


bgwiehle said...

There are 2 processes that I would recommend to help further searches:
1. Review all the records that have already been found. Are there any assumptions that should be discarded or new interpretations that could be pursued?
2. Look at the historical context of the person in question. Are there events (military, migration, settlement, etc.) that he logically might have been part of, given his age and location? What records might be pertinent? Are there family characteristics (naming patterns, occupations, economic status, religion, etc.) that might help focus research?

Denielle Radcliff Koch said...

I would add to search every census record you have located for that particular ancestor to see if there are others with that surname nearby. If there are and those individuals continue to remain close to the ancestor in question through subsequent censuses, there's a fair chance that they are related. Researching them may yield additional information on the individual in question.

Sharon said...

Good list, Randy.

I'm sure everybody can think of something else to add. (My own personal favorite is deeds.)

But I think your general list is very good and will likely keep "Mary" out of trouble for a long while!


Anonymous said...

Where were his children born? Where did they live? Look for HIS death records in those areas. His death certificate might indicate his parents. His will might indicate other relatives.