How To Find An Ancestor Who Disappeared: 29 Tips to Get Started

At some point in time, we have all thought about our roots. This may push us to trace our roots and to find out who our ancestors are. This is not always the easiest of tasks to accomplish because record-keeping wasn’t as advanced as it is today. This can lead to cases of ancestors who disappeared and gaps in family trees. We understand this and have therefore prepared useful methods to help you find that ancestor(s) who disappeared.

To find an ancestor, use a family tree to keep track of known individuals, families, and documentation. Gather and review improving information to verify information from multiple reliable sources. Use DNA testing to find new leads, and ask for expert help with advanced searches if needed.

Searching for an ancestor that disappeared can turn into a treasure hunt. In this article, we’re going to talk about the basics, because if you try to dive into the advanced searches first, you’ll likely just get frustrated (been there, done that!). But don’t worry – we’ll cover some of the advanced tips, too.

Read till the end to find out how to gather information, and what to do when you have little information on that ancestor.

Image of old photographs

How Can I Find My Ancestors?

The best way to find an ancestor requires a thorough search for information, available in any of the various records, archives, or histories that may apply. Modern search techniques, like indexed digital record collections, make finding data easier than older, search-every-record techniques.

In other words, finding your ancestors is easier than it used to be. But it’s still work. It will require you to be patient and meticulous – most especially if your search is further back in the past.

Here’s a list of steps to take to make your search easier.

Step #1 Create your family tree with what you know:

Start by creating your primary family tree. By starting with what you do know, you’ll be able to identify what you don’t know. Information you have gathered from different sources will be included here.

Some websites make this process easier for you and have affordable subscription plans. FamilySearch.org is our top pick of free websites, though you can see which other genealogy websites we recommend here.

What if you can’t afford them? Not a problem. We’ve outlined steps to help you draw one yourself.

  1. Draw an outline: This is the “skeleton” of the family tree, to serve as a guide and which can easily be corrected in case of a mistake.
  2. Work your way up: You’re drawing this without knowing where it all starts from, so it will be smart to move from the known to the unknown.
  3. Symbols: This greatly enhances the comprehensiveness of your tree especially when previewed. For example, use squares to indicate the males and circles to indicate the females. You can also use double lines to indicate when cousins got married, etc.
  4. Fill it in: Start filling in the information that you have been able to acquire so far.

Now that you’ve got an idea about what you do (or don’t) know, don’t forget to write down citations (information about where you found your information) as you go. It’s a whole lot harder to go back and find information the second time – unless you wrote down where you found it. These citations will help you prove (or at least verify) your data.

Step #2 Gather information to verify what you know (and find what you don’t):

This is where all the work is. This process requires you to be careful, accurate, and efficient. Here’s what to do.

Tip #1: Identify a SINGLE goal

Ask yourself this, what is missing in this giant puzzle? Who am I looking for exactly? Who do I want to discover? How far am I willing to go? What is my end goal?

The search for your ancestor is going to be broad, overwhelming, and cumbersome. So, take your time to pick a starting point to avoid confusion and frustration. You do not want to jump on that wagon all at once; it could drain your strength and confidence.

But seriously. Just pick one thing (or one group of things) to focus on. It’s a whole lot easier to focus on finding that proverbial needle in a haystack if you aren’t also looking for shoes, socks, and twenty other things.

Tip #2: Start with the basics and expand from there

Before you ask about the color of their eyes, get to know their full name, have a date you can work with such as birthday, death day, wedding day, etc.

A location is also one of the basic pieces of information you can get, be it their place of birth, death, etc.

Tip #3: Ask an elder or an expert

Old(er) people are awesome. So ask them for help! It is advisable to interview the elders in your family before anyone else. They may not be able to give you all the information you want but best believe that little caveats will fall out and help you add one more jigsaw piece to the puzzle.

Tap into their memories and pick at every piece of information you can get and before you know it, you have covered four generations, and stories and pictures would come alive in your head.

Be sure to record your interview sessions with them so as not to forget anything that was said. Make sure you annotate all of the interview-based information as from an interview.

Because while interviews are a great source of information, they aren’t always 100% right. It’s possible that some information got misremembered or changed in all the re-tellings. That’s not a dig on your family member – it’s just how human memories work. So always find paper documentation (if possible) to verify those family stories.

Tip #4: Know your scope (and stick to it)

In your search, always work within a reasonable scope at any given time. Diving headfirst into too much information over a broad range can cause things to become confusing very fast.

Start small. Then get bigger. Gradually go deeper in your search to increase efficiency and lower cases of mistakes happening.

Tip #5: Gradually expand your horizons

The first place you would naturally go to is your family. Up next, the Internet. Take advantage of the free genealogy websites online. Many companies have records and useful information at their disposal, ready to be sourced out by you.

Although, there are sites where you have to go through a paywall subscription to have access to those records and information. This only happens when the company pays for the rights to own those records.

If you think it’s worth your money, then go for it! Not only does it give you access to all that information, but it also gives you access to people. Ask nicely for help on genealogy forums, social media platforms with the relevant groups.

Pro tip: You can always check Breanne’s availability to see if she can guide you through some of the processes! You can see her availability by clicking here.

Individuals on these platforms are always ready to share their experiences, pitfalls, information, and facts they have gathered. Speaking to a group of people with the same interest also helps build up your confidence whenever you are feeling frustrated and lost in a rabbit hole.

Tip #6: Search group or public trees

Remember how we said FamilySearch was the best free tree option? Yeah. Now’s a great time to go check it. It’s a shared, public tree full of information.

Search for records and facts similar to the ones you gathered from your family and other sources. Think of this as a collaboration between you and researchers with common ancestral goals.

With more than one billion profiles and family trees created, you are bound to find tangible information or even potential family members. Don’t be quick to jump to conclusions; evaluate every piece of information even if it’s synonymous with your family tree.

This is because the records are changed and constructed by human beings, therefore, mismatching and mistakes are bound to happen.

Tip #7: Search ALL the records

We have been keeping records for a very long time and this is one of the first things you should look at when gathering information.

Examples of these records include:

  • census records
  • vital records
  • city directories
  • tax records
  • church records
  • military records
  • land records
  • school and college records
  • pension records
  • and more

There are a lot of records out there to go through but remember to always start within a reasonable scope before expanding.

Tip #8: Do a local search

As loaded as the internet is with information, it still doesn’t know everything (sorry, Google). When it seems like your extensive online search isn’t bearing many results, switch it up and do it the analog way.

For efficiency, a library, national archive, courthouses, or historical society within the location of the ancestor you’re looking for is a good place to start. Ask for newspapers, and any other records they could have, be thorough with your search, leave nothing out of the equation, and checklist the sources you have gone through to avoid getting disoriented.

Oh, and remember to search local to where your ancestor lived. Because if you live in California, no local searches will help you find an ancestor who lived and died in Europe.

So if you can’t do an in-person or local search, know that there are people you can hire on your behalf.

Tip #9: Get acquainted with graveyards

I know that graveyards have a bad reputation for being creepy or not the most fun place to be, but I promise that most graveyards aren’t too scary.

Besides, if it is to find that ancestor who disappeared, then it’s worth making the walk down there with a veteran grave locator by your side. Alternatively, there are online sites that have a large database of graveyards that you can make use of to make things easier for you.

Oh, and don’t forget to check Billion Graves first. That thing is like having a graveyard tour guide – but without having to actually talk to a person. Introvert perk!

Tip #10: Phone a friend or ask an expert

Okay, so game show jokes aside, ask an expert (or a genealogy pal) for help. Genealogy experts will give the best advice on methods and techniques to use in your search to see the best result.

Tip #11: Document, document, document, and document some more

Every useful information you get is important for linking the dots, even something that may not seem so useful at the moment, document it. With time it will all add up to the bigger picture.

File everything you know about your family – identify every member by name, age, date of birth/death, marriage, location, and down to their medical records.

You can start by analyzing yourself first; write everything there is to know about you – have a chart with your name on it.

And if that many paper records are too daunting? Go digital. This is when genealogy software will be a total lifesaver. Trust me. I know.

Tip #12: Evaluate and think outside the box

With the information that you have provided for yourself, scrutinize and compare it with your family’s information before inserting it into your family tree. Putting the puzzles together is the easiest but requires a little more brainwork.

Evaluate the project in front of you, check if your ancestral goals have been met as you fill up your family tree with facts and information that correlates with everything you have been working hard for.

Be sure to add credible citations to your family tree for easy revision. Tapping into your roots and finding thrilling stories about your ancestors just makes you want to represent your bloodline.

There is a feeling of completeness that comes with finding that ancestor you have a strong connection with. Take your time when diving into your search.

And don’t be scared when the past is laid right in front of you. But if it doesn’t immediately become clear? Give it time. Think outside the box for new places to search.

New records are always being indexed and become available (usually as hints) all the time, so if you keep looking at these then you may get more information with just some patience and not a lot of searching.

Then, be patient. And see what else you can find. Because our next step will help you fill in more holes.

Step #3 Use DNA testing to fill in research gaps faster

Suggest DNA testing to your family members. Legitimate archaeology websites provide opportunities for you to compare your DNA tests with thousands of other DNA samples.

Explore public libraries and national archives and make them your second home – you are going to be spending a lot of time there. They have endless information and records from many years ago that tally with what you are looking for.

Want to know about the best DNA tests to take – depending on your situation? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered with a whole article – so make sure you check it out next.

How Far Back Can You Trace Your Ancestors?

How far back you can trace your ancestors is dependent on various factors such as efficiency, accuracy in gathering information, family status, location, etc.

Ancestors can be traced from hundreds of years ago (sometimes longer, depending on the family) as long as all the right factors are in place. People who come from countries with a long history of civilization usually find it easier to trace their ancestors.

Many other families have lost their family stories and/or records as a result of slavery, immigration, poverty, fire outbreaks, war, floods, diseases, and other disasters.

Often when you try to venture deep into the past with a few online clicks and sources, you end up only discovering false family trees and records, so be careful at what information you collect.

The accuracy and reliability of ancient records are something you should always think about, too. Accuracy is an important factor to keep an eye out for when sourcing out records and information from far back, as they can easily be tainted and changed by human beings or some parts of it be damaged.

That is why it is important to compare your records with more than one source.

Plus, everyone wants to be related to the cool people. And nobody wanted to be related to that one guy. So often, families just ignored that one guy – and made up a relation claim to the cool guy (whoever it was).

Another factor to consider is how reputable your family was and where they lived in the past. Rich people and royalty were more likely to have accurate records.

If your family owned a large land or they were born into royalty then, you can rest assured that their names would be at the forefront of the list – as long as no tragic event destroyed records.

Being recorded was a luxury that many people, especially the middle and lower classes could not afford in those days.

Both of those are great reads, so check ’em out.

Why Can’t I Find My Ancestor in the Census?

Not being able to find your ancestor in the census is not a dead end. Many errors get made during a census during the counting and recording of the census data.

There are moments when you start to wonder if your ancestor existed at all. One moment they are missing in action, the next minute you find their names on another list. Look at it this way, you do not know a lot about your ancestor’s personal life. They may have joined the army, gotten married and changed last names, or even started a new life and changed identity. The reasons for their ghosting are numerous but a list of some of these reasons are given below.

Reason #1: Errors during enumeration (counting) and transcription (recording)

Putting down the data of hundreds of thousands to millions of people without the help of a supercomputer could very well lead to errors of all sorts. Even with a computer, there’s going to be issues!

Try swapping letters in your ancestor’s names. Names written in cursive can be difficult to read and can easily be misunderstood for something else. This is true whether you’re reading copies of the original, the original, or an indexed list.

There are also names with different spellings and the same pronunciations. For example, Toby and Tobi are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Always keep an open mind when searching on the census, not everything is as it seems.

Reason #2: Privacy policies aren’t totally new

Sometimes the reason why your search could be hindered is because of a government policy that was put in place to safeguard records and information of living individuals.

For example, US Census records are only released several decades after they’re collected.

Federal agencies keep some records out of reach and unavailable for sourcing. Your ancestor may not want his/her information as public property.

Reason #3: Databases aren’t 100% complete

The website you are solely focusing on could also be the issue. There are different websites to choose from and expand from.

Yes, they all have common services but they are built and structured differently. So, this gives you more options and sources to pick from.

If you do not find what you are looking for on website A and website B, you will find a clue on website C.

Reason #4: Location changes make tracking paperwork harder

That ancestor who disappeared may have changed location just before the census taker got to him/her or changed their mind on the location of their birthplace.

It will be wise to cover different towns, states, and countries with your ancestor’s full name and you just might find what you are looking for.

Some of these moves may have been incidental – and you’ll still be able to find your ancestor. Don’t forget to look into the history of the area and if there were any common migration or emigration patterns in that location.

Other times, your ancestor (or relative) was trying to start anew – perhaps with a new location, a new name, or all of the above.

How Do I Find My Ancestors With Little Information?

To find an ancestor when the paper trail goes cold, you will need more help from creative sources like DNA testing. Finding an ancestor with little information is hard but it’s not impossible. Here’s what you can do.

Tip #1: Do DNA Testing

Day by day, the world is advancing and knowledge is being disseminated like wildfire. DNA testing has upgraded to levels you can not even begin to imagine – it has opened doors to ancestral knowledge and roots.

DNA testing is one of the best methods to find your ancestors with little or no information.

Consider taking an autosomal DNA test to find who you are searching for. This DNA testing would provide you with DNA matches from 5 to 6 generations on both sides of your family.

Tip #2: Don’t discount Newspapers!

Search for newspapers near or in places your ancestor lived. You can easily go through them and discover death notices, accidents, and auspicious events that your ancestor may have taken part in.

To make this search faster and thorough, make use of websites that store newspapers as records.

If that doesn’t help, phone newspaper companies and ask them politely for their newspaper archives. Some of them may happily hand copies over to you. You won’t know unless you ask, right?

In case you need more help, here’s our article on how to get old newspapers. Give it a read – it’s got some great tips for you!

Tip # 3: Consider or go to their place of origin

This may require you to take a trip down to where your ancestor’s sphere of contact was. Investigate their old neighborhood and social gatherings; they hold pieces to the puzzle.

How so? They have come in contact with your ancestor at some point or other. So, they essentially know more about them than you do. In a Jedi-kind of way. But it still works!

Before the world evolved and the digital era took over, people had significant social lives. Unions were sealed, friendships were made, and businesses collaborated at a small, community level. So tap into that community.

You now have a string of potentials that can give you a piece of extensive knowledge about your ancestor.

Tip #4: Consult an expert

If genealogy and researching isn’t your forte, chances are you might hit a brick wall at some point in your search.

It is recommended to seek out professional genealogists to at least explain the difficult aspects of searching for an ancestor. They have the tools and the contacts to pave the way for you. This will burn your pockets a little bit as it, not a free service.

But don’t worry – we’ve got a post on what you can expect hiring a genealogist to cost – as well as when to hire them. Give that a read next.

Final Thoughts on Finding Missing Ancestors

Not everyone will be able to stick it out to the end because of the hurdles you would have to jump on this search. But rest assured that being able to find that ancestor who disappeared is a great and comforting experience.

Sometimes those ancestors who disappeared didn’t want to be found. So it can be really hard to find them. However, in many cases, it’s possible to find new leads and connections if you’re willing to stick with it and keep trying (and re-trying) the same searches over and over.

Sometimes, it just takes time for the right records, DNA tests, and papers to get indexed so you can find that missing ancestor. And other times? Well, it’s totally fine to pray for help in our book.

So keep looking for that ancestor. And if you get stuck? You’ve got your genealogy pals here to help! So make sure you subscribe to our totally free, totally awesome newsletter.

Cite this article as: “How To Find An Ancestor Who Disappeared: 29 Tips to Get Started.” Genealogy Pals, 16 June 2021, genealogypals.com/how-to-find-an-ancestor-who-disappeared-29-tips-to-get-started/.

Resources

When learning about genealogy, it’s important to learn from a wide variety of reputable sources. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as genealogists.

  • “3 Ways to Find Ancestors Who Didn’t Leave a Paper Trail: What to Do When There Are No Records.” Ancestral Findings, 6 Jan. 2019, ancestralfindings.com/what-to-do-when-there-are-no-records-3-ways-to-find-ancestors-who-didnt-leave-a-paper-trail/.
  • “5 Uncommon Places to Find Your Ancestors’ Missing Parents.” Family History Daily, 13 Sept. 2020, familyhistorydaily.com/genealogy-help-and-how-to/5-places-find-ancestors-parents.
  • “Explore Our Records.” 20 Things to Do When You Are Stumped, www.findmypast.com/content/20-things-to-do-when-you-are-stumped.’
  • “How to Find Ancestors Hiding in the Census.” Family Tree Magazine, 24 May 2021, www.familytreemagazine.com/records/census/hiding-in-the-census/.
  • “Iowa Institute of Human Genetics9.” Instructions on How to Draw a Pedigree | Iowa Institute of Human Genetics, medicine.uiowa.edu/humangenetics/resources/how-draw-pedigree/instructions-how-draw-pedigree.
  • u3asites.org.uk/files/c/caldicot/docs/10620tipstofindingyourmissingancestors.pdf
  • “When No Records Exist: Ten Strategies to Help You Find a ‘Missing’ Ancestor.” Family History Daily, 9 Oct. 2020, familyhistorydaily.com/genealogy-help-and-how-to/find-missing-ancestor.
  • www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=www.wm.edu/offices/auxiliary/osher/course-info/classnotes/sellgenealogicalrecords.pdf.