Research Challenges

Tracking ancestors across time

Photo on 8-3-15 at 9.07 AMPhoto on 8-3-15 at 9.07 AM #2Photo on 8-3-15 at 7.40 AM #2


As I write this post, I’m sitting in the aisle seat aboard Southwest airlines flight 1393 heading towards Chicago from Oakland, California. It’s the first of two flights that will eventually dump me in Norfolk where I pick up a rental car to ferret my way to a hotel in Suffolk, Virginia. To my right sits a young man with his arms stretched way too far into my seat. To my left, a food cart shaves a thin layer of skin from my elbow. The plane is too hot, too bumpy, and smells a little weird.

Despite it all, I really enjoy travelling. There is something uniquely exciting about cramming into a cylindrical metal machine and rocketing across the United States in the sky.

It’s almost science fiction-like.

Our ancestors probably liked to travel, too. For them, technology was a bit less intimidating but probably just as dangerous. Instead of flying in aluminum machines, they boarded covered wagons or mounted large mammals. Travel was a lot slower. A 5 or 6-hour flight for us would have taken them months. And what about household goods? Could you imagine moving 17,500 pounds of “stuff” from Boston to San Francisco in 1870 using wooden wagons?[1]

No wonder families remained stationary.

The United States Federal Census is the research tool of choice when seeking families across time because people didn’t move often. Tracking a family across successive census records can establish the names of family members and when they were born. Since each census asked slightly different questions, genealogists can also glean additional nuggets of information like where people were born, what year they immigrated to America (if applicable), or how long married couples were married. Each data point can then be used as starting points for additional research.[2]

But what do you do when people vanish from the census? Despite the government’s requirement to count its citizens, it happens. Take me, for instance.

I was born in Buffalo, New York but I’ve lived all over the United States because of my military service. In addition to New York State, I’ve had permanent addresses in Massachusetts, California, West Virginia, and Hawaii. Five states seems reasonable until you consider the number of times I’ve moved: 28. That’s about once every two years. Was I tracked to all these places in the census?

Probably not.

From my birth year of 1965, there have been 5 United States Federal censuses enumerated: 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010. Of the 5, I know for a fact that I was not counted in 2010. I was living in West Virginia at the time with my wife and dog. I was heavily engaged with my own family research at the time and was excited to know that I’d be recorded for posterity. Day after day I waited for the knock at my door. Day after day the door was silent. Instead of going to the post office to pick up a mail-in census, I remained steadfast.

“They will come,” I told my wife.

“I don’t think they will,” she said.

She was right. The enumerator never came and I missed my opportunity.

In 2000, I was single and living in California. I have no recollection of greeting a census taker at the door and certainly did not fill out any paperwork. The same applies for the 1990 census when I was living in Massachusetts: no knock and no paperwork. In 1980 I was starting my first year of high school. In 1970 I was in kindergarten. I don’t know whether my parents were visited or not because both are deceased. The 1970 census will not be released until 2042. Although I’ll be 77 years old, you can bet I’ll be looking for my name.

So what are some alternatives to using the census if our family disappears?

In the old days, families recorded births, marriages, and deaths in the family Bible. The Bible became a family heirloom, handed from generation to generation with each successive family added it’s own unique history. If you are fortunate to have one, you may be able to learn whether your ancestor passed away between census records. This is particularly valuable if your great grandmother or 2nd great grandmother remarried and took a new surname.

Bible record from the Hinton/Fischer family bible

Bible record from the Hinton/Fischer family bible


Old newspapers are another valuable source for filling gaps. Between 1920 and 1960, society (or gossip) pages were popular. In small towns, you’ll often find short notes about your ancestors visiting relatives visiting family in other states, spending time in hospitals having broken a hip, or simply celebrating birthdays. If you’re really lucky, you may also find wedding announcements. Better yet, you may find an obituary.

My grand uncle, from Canada, visits with my great grandmother from Evans, New York (Evans Journal, 1954)

My grand uncle, from Canada, visits with my great grandmother from Evans, New York (Evans Journal, 1954)


Birth and death records themselves can also fill voids between census records. While not always available digitally, some states have pushed these records to the Internet. Birth and death records for Texas and New Hampshire, for example, can be found without having to purchase research time from the state Vital Records department. New York, on the other hand, has yet to release records to the public. Obtaining those records would require a fee and proof that the ancestor you seek is a relative.

Death certificate of my grandfather, Frederick Cole.

Death certificate of my grandfather, Frederick Cole.


Try looking for military records, too. World War I and World War II draft registration cards often contain vital family information like dates of birth and addresses. If you great grandfather happened to be nomadic like me, you may be able to establish his location using one of these registration cards.

World War 1 draft registration card for my 1st cousin, 3 times removed.

World War 1 draft registration card for my 1st cousin, 3 times removed.

As you continue to research your family, you’ll often run into roadblocks that stop you dead in your tracks. Your challenge is to seek options and remain persistent. If you are here – and you are – your ancestors were somewhere. They had to be. Finding them is like solving a mystery. Look at the clues, see where they lead, and build your history.

Happy hunting!

[1] My last move from Hawaii to San Francisco in 2014 weighted in at 17,400 pounds – just 100 pounds shy of the Coast Guard’s weight limit for a Commander (O4).

[2] See my Do-it-yourself Family History, Part 4: Census Records for more on census records.

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