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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: When Your Ancestor is Missing from the Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

August 29, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

There is nothing more frustrating than looking in the records where your ancestor should be and not finding him or her there. I am sure that we have all experienced this rather disappointing event at least once in our genealogical career. Unfortunately for most of us this isn't just a one time experience and we find it happening all too frequently.

When it happens to me, I find myself returning to the information I have already amassed to see where I made a wrong turn. While there are times when the individual is definitely in the area and they are just not appearing in the records, usually I find it is because I have jumped a step, a name is different, or some other information I have is incorrect.

When in doubt, return to your research to see if you made a wrong turn.

Just What is the Name?

Many of you can sympathize with me on this, I am sure. The more records we find on a family the more names we find, often on the female head of the family. So often we get nicknames or variations on the surname as we gather marriage records or death certificates on the children. (It is sometimes enough to make us question why we are doing this!)

When I get many different names, I will begin by taking a plain piece of paper and writing each name down. Beside that name I will list each record that used that name, being sure to specify if it is a child's death certificate and who the informant is or if it is a marriage record or some other source. The list of records can only be evaluated when you know the reliability of the information on the record. That is why, in the case of death records for the children, it is important to know the informant. There are times when the informant is guessing, or cannot remember clearly the name of the parent of the deceased.

Once I have these all written down, I will then look through the list and begin to rate the names based on the records that supplied that given name. I think you will see, as I have, that some names become more likely based on the records from which they came. After all, the name as listed on a death certificate where the informant is a child of the deceased is less likely to be accurate than that of a marriage record of a child.

Many times when I am working on a tree where I have amassed information from someone else I find that the names have either been misinterpreted from the records or for some unknown reason the individual, despite seeing the real name, has continued to use some other name. This was evident to me recently in searching for a Mahala Davis. She married a Burnett and in the Burnett family history that I found, she was consistently listed as Matilda. This surprised me given that in each record, she was cited in the source as Mahala. This included the census records of her as both a child and an adult, as well as her death record. I still haven't been able to figure out where they got the Matilda from and had I not already had her death certificate I may have been mislead in my research on this line.

Incorrect Dates

Dates are another of those bits of information that are sometimes recorded incorrectly in the records and research we are relying on. For instance, in working with a line recently, I had received some information from another researcher. This researcher had not cited any sources, but there were full dates and places for many of the individuals included.

As is my habit, I was verifying this information through available documents such as census, death records, obituaries, and marriage records, among others. Most of what had been shared with me was tracking along, with a few minor name differences (many of them spelling variations, a hazard of any genealogical research). I got to one couple, though, and the death dates were 1860 for the husband and 1859 for the wife. My problem? I had this couple in the 1870 census. So I was forced to ask myself was I wrong or was the person who had shared the information wrong?

Further research in probate records answered my question. Had I limited my research of probate for this person to 1860 I would have assumed that no will or probate existed for this individual. Instead I looked through many years of wills and probate for the individual in question and finally found him in 1899. This was 39 years later than the date given me by the other person.

Expand Your Research

There are times that we set ourselves up for a failure where the records are concerned. We search just the years when we suspect that the person was born, married or died. When we don't find them, we often move on to other records or assume that their event was not recorded. More often than not though we have limited our search too much.

When working with any indexes it is a good idea to go through the entire index, not just stop when we have passed the year in which we suspect the even took place. Had I done that with the man who was supposed to have died in 1860 I would not have discovered his real death date.

If the indexes are limited to each volume, then it is a good idea to research 20 to 30 years on either side of the event in question. Unless the information you have is irrefutable it is always possible that it is wrong and that by limiting your research to the given volume when the event was supposed to have taken place that you have overlooked the volume in which it was actually recorded.

Even when you are positive of the date of birth, marriage or death, consider expanding your research a bit to include a couple of years after the event. Most birth, marriage and death records are not filed by the date of the event but by the date when the record was entered or recorded at the courthouse. As such, it is possible for there to be days or months or sometimes a year from the date of the event to the date when the event was filed at the courthouse. And always look at the next volume up if your ancestor's event is in the final year of that volume. There are often overlaps between the two volumes.

In Conclusion

If your ancestor is not showing up in the records where you expect him or her to be, there are some things you will want to do. First, examine and re-evaluate the information you have already collected. Consider variant spellings, both of the given name as well as the surname. Finally make sure to expand your search by years both before and after the event was said to have taken place.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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