Tracing your family history often starts with interviewing immediate family members, delving into their treasure trove of family stories and documents, and then moving in concentric hereditary rings outward. Quite often, these accounts bring new information to light – a name, a date, a job, etc. – all of which acts as breadcrumbs, leading you further into your family heritage
But what do you do if your path leads you to a seemingly dead end: to a family member that you have never heard of and have no idea how to locate? That family member may hold the key to the next set of clues in your family history. While it may seem like the end of the road, it doesn’t have to be.
Luckily for you, there are steps you can take when figuring out how to find lost relatives. We’re sharing 7 tips you can use to help you locate family members missing from your family tree.
Tip #1: Identify Your Search Term
While this may seem obvious, it is critical that you identify the target of your search and the reasons underlying this enterprise. It is important that you explicitly know the following:
- Who it is you want to locate.
- Your relation to them.
- Whether, to your best knowledge, they are dead or living.
- The people most likely to know them or know of them.
- What you hope to discover by finding them, i.e., are they the terminus of this expedition, or do they possibly hold information that helps you go back even further?
If they are within one or two generations of you, finding them may be much more straightforward thanks to modern recordkeeping and data. If they are further removed than that, chances are you will have more searching ahead of you. If searching their name didn’t work, try misspellings, locations where they lived, and even relatives’ names.
Tip #2: Journey before Destination
Although you have an end goal in mind, you need to remind yourself that you are on a voyage of discovery. Unlocking the secrets to your genealogy is not always a simple A to B linear progression. Keep in mind that there will likely be many detours, obstacles, hindrances, and backtracks you have to make for every new piece of information you manage to unearth; but that is half the fun of it. Think of yourself as a family archeologist carefully uncovering the bones of your family’s past. As such, there may be times when you hit a snag and realize you need to retrace your steps to the previous fork in your genealogical road. That is okay. Embrace it, enjoy it.
Tip #3: Interview Close Family and Friends
As mentioned, you will want to start with those closest to your bloodline in order to get the most recent and reliable information. If there is a specific relative you want to locate, take the time to interview those near you who could help reveal large swaths of information or even tidbits of their story. Consider interviewing:
- Family friends who knew them or knew of them
Ask them about the following vital records regarding the person you are searching for:
- Their date of birth (DOB)
- Their full name/nicknames
- Marriage date, name of spouse
- Their date of death
- Their occupation, name of the company or companies they worked for
- Their kids, siblings, or parents’ names and DOBs
- Any photos they might have of them
If you feel like you need more information, move on to extended family members who might have had closer family relationships with your quarry.
Tip #4: Collect the Data
Write down all of the information you discover and then collect it all into one place. If your family members have other potential sources of information like scrapbooks, diaries, photo albums, Bibles, letters, birth certificates, immigration records, etc., be sure to spend the time digging through these resources. You’d be amazed by the kernels of knowledge you can discover in such seemingly innocuous records such as the family Bible. Once you have thoroughly exhausted these immediate research options, it’s time to start using your newfound clues.
Tip #5: Research, Research, & Research
Once you have collected all the possible firsthand and secondhand sources, you will want to apply this research in conjunction with external resources. Newspaper archives are a great place to start, especially the local city and town papers. Newspapers preserve the daily lives of our ancestors – from hitting the winning home run to town politics, and everything in between.
- Electoral rolls
- Census records
- Birth records
- Marriage records
- Social Security Death Index
If these tools fail to unlock new pertinent information, you can also try Google and Facebook, especially if your target is someone who is still living.
Tip #6: Organize and Analyze the New Information
Your data study should reveal new information that you can use, not only for this current project, but for further genealogical research you may want to pursue in the future. Be sure to highlight and explicitly state each new clue you discover. Also, your exploration may open up new genealogical roads for you to go down another time, so make a note of those as well. By compiling, categorizing, and analyzing your new information, you not only help your future self, but other family members who may want to collaborate or take up the mantle of family historian at some later point.
Tip # 7: If at First You Don’t Succeed…
Perseverance is incredibly important when it comes to finding long-lost family members you have never met. It is critical that you don’t give up, even if it feels like the trail has gone cold. If your ancestry research did not bring to light any immediate answers, then keep looking for new avenues to follow. Like a Sudoku puzzle or a Crossword, even one new datapoint can unlock others that seemed forever a mystery.
Using GenealogyBank to Find Lost Relatives
Tracking down long-lost relatives can be a challenge, but each clue you find can lead to uncovering new details about your family history. Genealogy research takes time, effort, and patience. With GenealogyBank on your side, however, you have an incredibly powerful archive of relevant documents you can use to shed light on your family’s history and whereabouts. So, what are you waiting for? Unlock your story and discover your family history today!
- Trilling, D. Journalist’s Resource. Birth, marriage and death: How to find vital records.
- National Archives. Resources for Genealogists. Census Records. https://www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/census
- National Freedom of Information Coalition. State Freedom of Information Laws. https://www.nfoic.org/coalitions/state-foi-resources/state-freedom-of-information-laws