8 Reasons You Can’t Find Squat About Your Ancestors Online

Whether you search online, or offline at libraries, courthouses, or archives, many times our ancestors can be elusive.
Sometimes they just cannot be found. Whether it be a birth date, census entry, or death date – or anything else of interest to us – we just can’t seem to “score.”
There are lots of reasons why we aren’t successful, but many are because of our own limitations – and especially because we are just too limited in our thinking, and sometimes either inexperienced, or unwilling to try new things.
Below are just a few reasons why we can’t find our ancestors online:
  • They aren’t there!  Yes this is a possibility. I have a great great aunt, Carrie Marks, who shows up only in one record – the 1880 U.S. Census. She is documented as the daughter of Louis and Caroline Marks, aged 11, born in California. One would think that at age 11, she would have showed up in the 1870 census at age 1, right?  Nope – she is not there with the family. Had she not been born yet and the age 11 reference in 1880 was wrong? Was she in a hospital at the time of the census? Unfortunately, there is no 1890 census to help and by that time she could have married and changed her name. Even more worrisome is that since her mother’s name was also Carrie – maybe it was a census taker error. Maybe she didn’t exist at all. Then again, maybe I just haven’t found her yet.
  • Have you expanded your search?  Just searching one or two online sources, such as Ancestry.com or FamilySearch just isn’t enough. Yes these are huge resources, but just as everything isn’t online, all the online stuff isn’t in their collections either. There are tons of other resources. Thousands of online collections not named Ancestry or FamilySearch.
  • Do you do only exact searches?  People who write down others names often write them wrong. And then if there is an index created, they can be mis-transcribed or mis-typed. There are very few if any documents available online that were written by the ancestor themselves. They are generally recorded by someone else from first or second hand (or worse) information. So you need to be creative with your name searching by deliberately searching for names misspelled or using wildcard searches. Yes I said deliberately misspell search terms. You will be surprised at what you will find.
  • Do you combine searches and omit surnames?  For example – if you can’t find the surname in a collection – do you search for the husband’s first name and the wife’s first name also, in a specific geographic area? As an example, since their surname was often mangled, I often searched for husband “Ben” and wife “Jennie” (with a blank surname) in California because that is where they lived. This may have given me quite a few folks who didn’t have the correct surname – but all I needed was one! The right one!
  • Have you looked beyond document collections?  Sure census records are popular, and draft cards and naturalization, land and immigration records too. But how about newspapers? I have found new names of extended family members stated in newspaper obituaries and other articles just as much as finding a family together in a census. Check out the Newspapers page on this site for much more information regarding searching newspapers. They are a very underrated resource for you to find stuff. Besides you might find out that your great great uncle was an ax murderer! Exciting!
  • Are you aggressive?  Or do you just give up too easy? Sitting around waiting for shaky leaves or smart matches? Have you uploaded your tree to FamilySearch, WikiTree, Ancestry, My Heritage,etc.? Then are you just waiting around for “cousins” to contact you – or the services themselves to shake a leaf on your screen? Ain’t gonna cut it. You have to be an aggressive as well as creative researcher. And get out of the house if you can. Get to libraries, archives, courthouses and genealogical societies.  There is a ton of material that can be accessed that is not digitized or is only available at the institution in a binder somewhere.
  • Do you have a research plan?  Or do you just search ad hoc, searching broadly for the same thing again and again? What’s the old quote? “The definition of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That applies here. Yes collections change and are updated. But gee – get yourself a plan. Here’s an Example of a Template that Caroline Pointer created for Evernote that you can adopt (with or without Evernote) regarding planning for research. Yes it seems like a lot of work when you’d rather be surfing for ancestors. But it is time well spent and I assure you that a research plan will make the difference between finding or not finding some ancestors. Guaranteed!
  • They aren’t there – Part 2  Really. They aren’t there. Nobody wrote stuff down back then. Records weren’t kept of births in many countries or local villages and towns. There were no marriage certificates. Gravestones have been buried due to wars and such over time. Babies weren’t born in hospitals and there were no mortuaries. Not every family had a Bible that they recorded information in. Men didn’t carry around a draft card and there was no Social Security.
So that’s it for now. A few reasons why you haven’t found some folks. But you can’t give up – with a few exceptions – ancestors who have lived any time in the last 200 years or so should be able to be found somewhere – and you are just the person to find them. Right?
All you need to do is PLAN, BE AGGRESSIVE, THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX, and BE PERSISTENT.
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38 Comments

  1. Great post! Number four has worked for me on several occasions and, one time, when I finally found my Great x 5 Grandfather using this method it was because both his surname and age had been transcribed incorrectly. It’s very important to never ever give up. 🙂

    1. Thanks Jessica for your nice comment. Persistence is the biggest key I think. Thanks again for visiting.

  2. you sound like you’ve been thorough, so this may be a useless suggestion. . .have you tried the California death indexes by putting in her first name and her mother’s maiden name? That often helps me find female cousins in CA. Or, if she died young, she may be buried with her parents.

    1. Thanks John – no suggestion is useless. Yes I have done what you have suggested, with no success – but thanks for offering it. This is a type of search I have done numerous times since I have hundreds of California ancestors and relatives. Thanks for the suggestion. Maybe it will help others who read your comment!

  3. Just every once in a while you’ll find what no one else has figured out…. and what a rush that is! I had a situation similar to your #1 example and after seeing dozens of trees for the family, I realized their was an oldest daughter that was born after the 1880 census and married before the 1900. She signed her mother’s death certificate but it didn’t click until later. Now if I could just find that other missing brother…..

    1. Have you tried looking for names on Wagon Train manifestos? I am not tech savvy, so this is a problem I am having myself. I know they came from New York on a covered wagon, they came to Indiana during the cold months, she had a baby that was my husband’s Great grandfather, and he was born about three months after they reached here in or around 1843-44.

  4. I have my grandfather’s Birth and Marriage certificate.i have searched on Ancestry.com for nearly 3yrs with no luck. His name was Ernest Frederick Selmon. The name then was spelt Salmon.He was born in Bromley Kent. He lived with his Grandparents Robert and Eliza until he was 11yrs old. I know nothing about him since then.He worked in the pits then went in The Grenadier Guards.He married Dora Maria Ward in1909. Then their Son , my father ernest Frederick Roy Salmon was born on November 1st 1909 in Bedwelty Wales.Dora Maria died in 1913.I am now unable to go forward,Any help would be a great help. Many Thanks, Mr MK Salmon.

      1. Hello, can you clarify what you want to know when you say you are unable to go forward? Do you mean forward from your father or do you want more information on your grandparents?

      2. I haven’t been on Ancestry for over 1yr, but I have since rejoined but I am not getting any joy, I still put in Ernest frederick Salmon/Selmon.as I am a 75yr old lady and not very Great at technical information.what can I do to find out where and when he Died. Please help me if you can.Mrs Dorothy Salmon, wife of Malvin Keith Salmon.

      3. Hi there. I hope you found your tree on Ancestry.com. It is there! It is called NEW FAMILY TREE and has everyone shown on it. His mother Caroline Mary Salmon. BIRTH OCT 1871 • Bromley, Kent, England, DEATH DEC 1921 • Greenwich, London, England. He died Jun Q 1962 Bromley, Kent. Regards

  5. I’m trying to research my ancestry. I found practically nothing about my father’s side: a death record for his father (my grandfather), a 1940 US Census record with that person and his parents, and a marriage record for those parents in the census. On the other hand, I got incredibly lucky with my mother’s side. She talks about her family more often, and I found a record for her mother’s father. From there, I traced my ancestry all the way back to the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

  6. Great tips. I had never thought of leaving out surnames. I am having an extra hard time because one set of G. Grandparents weren’t married, so their surnames wouldn’t match or they might try and cover it up. Unfortunately I still haven’t found them.

  7. The fartherest back I know is my great g’father, how do i go back beyond him to find his ancestors? Last I know is Oscar D McCluskey

  8. All my husband knew for sure about his dad was his name, rank and serial number. Oh…and a couple other things like he was adopted before age 3, parents died when he was somewhat young and his birth name was “Danbury” and he really really liked women. I found my husband’s bio grandparents and adoptive grandfather, 3 more ( older) half siblings, one half uncle one 1st cousin and 4 more generations of great grandparents and extended lateral family members all within 1 1/2 years of searching. The surname turned out to be Dansby, not Danbury…but…what does a toddler know when he’s never met his Y-DNA donor? I wish my own brick walls had been so simple.

  9. I don’t seem to exist on any record. Does anyone know why? My brothers and sisters do.

  10. I’m from Australia and I’m having a lot of trouble finding some of my ancestors before they came to Australia. I’m ready to give up on certain family lines. Really disappointed.

  11. I have searched and searched. I even did my ancestry DNA. My mother was born at grey nuns hospital in Regina Saskatchewan Shirley Ann Mclaughlin. August 2,1936. she never spoke of her family only to say she was raised in the sacred heart convent in Vancouver bc. I contacted the Archdiocese this is not true. nor was she baptized. she said she had a b but never mentioned his name. I got zero hints on ancestry for her side of Myour family

  12. Annie Mae Meriwether b 1909 died ??? lowndes county alabama first husband jim press meriwether, second husband robert taylor I know all about her except where she was buried at? Last place she lived was birmingham, alabama and somewhere in nyc. cookster2000@yahoo.com

  13. I had one Scots lady who was emancipated by 14, thus, had only one census with her family. She then assumed a new surname; the only one in the family to select so. She moved to, married and was widowed in the US. Then she returned to Scotland with her married name. Quiet, coffee and persistence seemed to find her, although, with so many variables, one can never be certain.

  14. #4 was a game changer for me! I have been trying to trace my father’s family back, and ended up stuck at his great-grandparents! My mom’s side of the family and my dad’s maternal side of the family can be traced back into the 1700-1500s! But here I am with dad’s family and I can’t seem to get past the 1930 census in Georgia! #4 reminded be that no one spells Buchanan right. Finally found the first clue tonight by searching with their first names in Georgia and sure enough, there they were with the last name listed as “Buckan”. Thanks so much!

    1. Exactly! You have to purposely misspell names especially from states in the southern USA. A lot of censustakers were barely literate and it shows. And I really don’t like it when someone’s name is reduced to initials, like “A.J. Smith”. Happy hunting!

  15. Great tips! One thing I have learned with census records is to check and double check. I’ve noticed some where the names are grossly misspelled or misheard and written down wrong and then I’m trying to figure out why that person doesn’t show up anywhere else, but someone I know for a fact should be listed on the census isn’t.

    1. Yes, Jennifer. Census records are a real challenge. Name misspellings are indeed commonplace.

  16. Another point, that goes with “They aren’t there” is that the records exist but haven’t been digitized or organized yet. The Bible is in a box somewhere in an archive, or the records are considered low priority so they haven’t been filmed yet, or the governments are just now understanding that digitization is important so things have been sitting for a while. Or the record is there but misfiled in a separate collection, so the image exists but won’t be online yet until it is indexed properly.

  17. Thanks for the tip to make sure to include surnames when you search for ancestors. My daughter is really into genealogy but has gotten stuck, so I’m trying to help her. I’ll have to figure out if she has searched all of our family surnames to see if we can find more people on our family tree.

  18. The other option you didn’t mention is that some of our ancestors outright lied about marriages, parentage, names, origins and what not. I have had so much fun discovering my gg-grandparents’ true origins and finally figuring out that both were on the run and deliberately covering up their past. It wasn’t until I realized that none of the recorded facts were adding up to the alleged “stories” that had been passed down. Researchers often put their ancestors up on pedestals and believe them to be righteous and true but sometimes they’re devious and shifty and can’t be trusted to give true and correct information to officials from the past.

    1. I agree with you Jeanne, I found alot of stuff on my maternal grandfather but not my maternal grandmother at all. I have gotten diffrent stories of who my father was. And there are secrets being hidden that i believe is why I cant find anything. I found out I might be related to one of my aunts….crazy stuff. I am still digging…

      1. Brenda, don’t forget to look through old newspapers. Especially if you’re in the USA but in other countries they have loads of older papers with loads of info. Best of luck to you in your search for that elusive ancestor.

  19. i’ve wanted to ask someone for help for so long and you seem to answer so many so nicely i’ll try to be short but factual father doesn’t remember any grandparents or hearing anything about them his parents marriage certificate has their names names are consistent on censuses but birth places change and aren’t specific so i have no places or years other than how old they would have been and probably died before my father was born part of my problem i think is the name i’ve tried the newspaper cite and because his name was frank james and his wife was annie (stewart) and the time line is close i get only headlines of the james gang his fathers name was frank james too but no II or jr. so maybe something is wrong with the name any help would be wonderful happy thanksgiving

    1. Where is the marriage cert from? Dates? Do you have an exact birthdate for your dad and his first name? Sometimes you can work back on a census even if you don’t know where they lived.

  20. Megan, I did a bit. of looking. Looks like your dad was born in Canada but he appears to be on the 1900 MI census. Looks like he was born in Canada, his father born in Scotland and mother in Canada. Let me look a bit more and maybe I can find a birth record for your dad if this is him. Born 1884 it says on the census.

  21. Sorry excited to hear from you but hard to complete email without distraction also part of my research prob too plus being dyslexic to the points dad is Jimmy James born 1935 gpa Frank James born 09 aug 1888 I’ve seen Canada, Lakefield, and Marquette for his birth I believe first was a census second death certificate for child third his obituary married 08 jul 1912 I have marriage certificate died 21 apr 1965 even though died before I was born I have pics stories and that marriage certificate really would like more info on his father and mother the marriage certificate is from Sault st Marie Michigan frank James and Annie Stewart now that I think of it I’ll dig it out and make sure I’m not assuming spelling on her name cuz of what internet says thanks again if I missed anything you would like to know just ask if you want access to either my wikkitree or family search accounts I can set that or it might get you stuck like me

  22. Maybe it’s better not to dig but I got out the envelope of old papers I have a lot of good ones for Sarah (Stewart) and Frank James also his death certificate says unlearned for father so maybe that’s why it’s so inconsistent and the same name as his but I was so hard to hear my dad tell the story of when he saw his dad for the last time cold in a room alone with just a night shirt to be called at 4 in the morning to be told he died of pneumonia just seeing him trying not to totally ball his eyes out was so hard now I’m balling it doesn’t say pneumonia on the card though different heart things maybe to hide what they did anyway another thing I just saw was his mother on the death certificate says Mary Stuart not like marriage Annie Stewart now I guess to omit frank as the dad and do some more searches

  23. Have not been able to find Richard Gill marriage to Jane Davies 1857-1858 have tried Banns as well as well as every site you can think of. He was born 1826 in Denbigshire Wales and she 1829 Shropshire. I have also tried FreeBMD and register offices in Hereford and Worcester where the children were born. In them days many could not read or write so the parish priest may have written their name as he heard it.
    John.
    johnpodesta@rocketmail.com

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