Do you ever feel as though your ancestors are playing hide and seek with you? Do you want to shout: Come out come out wherever you are!
Maybe they’re not really hiding. Maybe, just maybe, you haven’t look in the right place yet.
Over the many, many years I’ve been looking for my ancestors, some of them certainly seemed as though they were playing hide and seek with me. But eventually, in many cases, I’ve found them, often hiding in plain sight. It just takes some out of the box thinking. Here are five places I’ve found my hidden ancestors.
They say that to err is human and certainly making mistakes transcends history. We’re not perfect. The person who transcribed the records for the database we’re searching wasn’t perfect. The person giving the information wasn’t perfect. The person writing the information down wasn’t perfect. That’s a lot of room for errors!
We’ve all seen them. Glaring and not so glaring errors in transcriptions on Ancestry, Find My Past, Family Search and any other genealogy search website you can think of. Hopefully we’ve added a correction to them for the next researcher but they sure can be frustrating!
In a recent post on census search strategies, I wrote about my Brazier family in the 1851 census where the last name of Brazier was transcribed no less than three different ways in the same record!
It could be that your ancestor was enumerated in the census, was baptized or married or buried, was in the military, but has been incorrect transcribed in the database you are searching. Check out my post, census search strategies, to find five ways to find your ancestor despite transcription errors. While some of these strategies apply specifically to searching census records, others are applicable to all types of records.
Wrong Information Provided
Sometimes, our ancestors simply gave the wrong information. Perhaps it was a simple error. Perhaps it was even an outright lie.
In the very early years of my research, I obtained the death certificate for my great-grandmother, Eliza Taylor nee Turner. On it, her father was listed as Nathaniel Turner and I spent a lot of time looking for Nathaniel back in England. 1)“Ontario, Canada Deaths, 1869-1934,” database and images on-line, ancestry.ca (www.ancestry.ca : downloaded image 7 August 2007), entry for Eliza Taylor died 17 Mar 1931; Archives of Ontario. Registrations of Deaths, 1869-1934. MS 935, 496 reels.
Eventually, I found Eliza Turner’s birth family and it turned out that her father’s name was actually Emanuel Turner. 2)England, Certified Copy of an Entry of Birth (long form), Eliza Turner, 1850; General Register Office, London, England. Stourbridge vol 18: 492.
Whether my great-grandmother, the informant on the death certificate, gave the name Emanuel in her strong accent and the person taking the information heard Nathaniel, or whether she just got it wrong, given that her grandfather died 3-years before she was born, I’ll never know but it certainly had me searching for someone that just didn’t exist!
Transcription errors aside, sometimes errors were made at the time information was recorded in historical records. Enumerators and parish clerks were not infallible.
It took some very creative searching to find my great-aunt Florence in the 1911 census in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and I finally resorted to brute force searching, scrolling through the records before I succeeded. 3)Year: 1911; Census Place: 82 – Winnipeg, Winnipeg City, Manitoba; Page: 4; Family No: 34 Not only were there transcription errors in the Ancestry database, but the enumerator appears to have copied the information from some other source, perhaps a paper with his or her rough notes, and has shifted information from one resident to another, making a confusing hot mess of the data.
The entry on the image appears to have been mis-copied to the form. Thomas Bond is transcribed as Thomas Bone and is shown to have been born Aug 1876 in Saskatchewan (should be Jul 1884, England). He is brother to the housekeeper Josephine Downie (transcribed as Josephine How??) and uncle to Leonard Downie, (transcribed as Leonard Da??). Josephine is shown as being born Dec 1886 in Ontario instead of Apr 1887 in England. These details are actually shown for the person below her on the form. Leonard Downie, Josephine’s son, is shown as being born Feb 1892 in Manitoba. According to the 1916 census, Leonard was born in 1908 in Manitoba.
Another example of an error in the records appears in a narrative I wrote about my Bond family in the third of a five part series called the Bond Family Chronicles on The Social Historian website. From civil records, I know that my great-great-grandmother gave birth to a daughter Frances in 1845 who died at a few weeks of age, but the parish records have that baby listed as a boy named James. 4)St. John’s Church Preston (Preston, Lancashire, England), Baptisms, p. 125, James Bond, son of Thomas and Alice Bond, actually Frances Bond, daughter of Thomas and Alice Bond; FHL microfilm 1,278,755.
Sometimes, our ancestors just seem to disappear, poof. They are born, appear in a few records and then they are gone, and become one of the disappeared, presumably abducted by aliens.
But maybe there are no aliens involved. Maybe they simply emigrated to another country.
Such was the case with John Bulmer, my third great-uncle. John was one of the fourteen children of my four-times great-grandparents, Thomas and Mary Bulmer. Through many years of research, I had uncovered all of their children’s stories, all except John. He was born in 1823 and appeared with the family on their farm in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1841 census when he was 18-years-old. Ten years later, he had left the farm and was working as a butcher’s apprentice in the nearby town of Bradford. And then, nothing. Try as I might, I could find no other trace of John. When John’s father, Thomas, died in 1866, and mentioned John in his will, the wording made it clear that even the family didn’t know where John was. Eventually, I conceded to temporary defeat and posted him among the Most Wanted on my website.
A few years later, I received an email out of the blue from a researcher in Australia telling me that he was the great-great-great-grandson of John Bulmer. John was found! It appears that shortly after 1851, John had left Yorkshire for Australia where he married and raised a family, a possibility that I had considered briefly but hadn’t put much time into researching.
In a similar story, I searched for many years for Florence Ethel Williams, the daughter of my great-aunt Laura Williams. Eventually, after many fruitless searches, I made her the subject of a crowd-sourcing experiment. Finally, a couple of years later, a descendent of Florence’s saw my plea somewhere and reached out to me. I found that Florence had emigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1905 at the age of 19, married, had a family, and then moved to the United States in about 1924.
The Name Game
A Rose by any other name… might be a Rosa, Rosalie, Rosina, Rosaria, Rosie, Rosanna, Roseanne, or Rosamunde. Our ancestors sometimes changed their names or appeared under nicknames or diminutives of their name or their middle name. They were often illiterate as well, and spelling was optional.
Nicknames and Middle Names
My third-great-grandmother, Cordelia Esther Birch, led me on a merry chase for quite some time, seemingly changing her name on every record, perhaps to thwart my research centuries later.
She was baptized Cordelia Esther Birch at St. Mary’s Church in Lancaster, Lancs in 1791. The next record I have of her is of her marriage to Thomas Bond where she appears as Esther Birch in 1822 in Prestwich, Lancs. Thomas died only two years later and Cordelia married John Haywood at the Manchester Cathedral in 1825. There, she gave her name as Daley Bond. She moved to Kirkham, Lancs after that, and appeared in the 1841 census as Delia Haywood. In 1851, she was still in Kirkham, this time listed as Deliah Heywood. in 1861, she returned to her baptismal forename, Cordelia Esther Haywood, still living in Kirkham. In 1871, she is living with her son, listed as Cordelia Heywood, the same name that finally appeared on her death certificate in 1874. I found these records by searching with wildcards (H?ywood), by just leaving out her first name in searches and by searching variations and diminutives of the name Cordelia.
These days, it is very common, pardon the pun, for couples to live together in a common-law relationship, rather than marrying. We tend to think of this as something that our generation invented, but there was a lot more of it going on in our ancestors’ days than we might think. When you can’t find your female ancestor in the records, consider that she might have been shacking-up with a man and gave her last name as his for the sake of appearances.
This was the case with my great-grandmother Jessie, who I have been researching for dozens of years. In my most recent breakthrough, I finally found the passenger record where she came to Canada after many years of painstaking, fruitless searches. It turned out that she was travelling with a man by the name of Timothy O’Sullivan, which ironically turned out to an assumed name as well! They were not married at the time of their voyage, but did tie the knot in Montreal two years later. Just to make things more complicated, the Montreal marriage record shows Timothy’s real name, Timothy O’Hare. You can read all about my discovery in my post Mystery in Montreal.
There are many reasons why your ancestor might appear under their initials and last name, rather than their full name on census records so if they are proving elusive, always give this advanced search option a try. In some databases, you will have to enter their first name as initials, but in Ancestry’s search you will find an option to include initials under ‘exact’ in the search box.
My great-great-grandfather, Albert Harris, is one of the black sheep in my family. In and out of gaol for much of his life, he happened to be incarcerated in the District West Riding Prison in Wakefield, Yorkshire when the 1871 census was taken.
I had tried in vain to find him in 1871 and it was only after I found the records of his various arrests and convictions that I thought to search the prison records. Here he is, in all his glory, listed only as A.H.
Other common situations where your ancestor might show under their initials are in newspapers, passenger lists, city directories, census records of hotels and lodging houses, workhouses, hospitals, military camps, and other institutions. Make sure you search for them with just their initials. They might be hiding in plain sight!
Not Where They’re Supposed To Be
Sometimes, when the census was taken, or a couple married, or a baby was baptized or a burial took place, our ancestors weren’t where we thought they were supposed to be. Sometimes, they were somewhere else. And we’ll never find them unless we look further than where we thought they should be.
In 1871 when the census was taken, my great-grandfather, John David Taylor, and his parents, John and Mary Ann Taylor, were not in Staffordshire where John David was baptized. They were not in Warwickshire where John and Mary Ann were married. They were visiting in a house that belonged to Ann Derry in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancs.
Contrary to what we sometimes think, people travelled and visited in the nineteenth century. Sometimes, they travelled great distances. Sometimes they married within their small village, but other times, they chose a mate from a long distance away. Sometimes women gave birth at home, and sometimes they travelled to another place to give birth at the home of a relative. Cast your net wider and you might find where they are hiding.
Sometimes our ancestors’ origins are far from where we think they should be. We need to consider that they might have moved house and home, and sometimes over a substantial distance. This is especially true during the industrial revolution years (mid-eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century) but also a possibility to consider at any time.
William Bulmer, my five-times great-grandfather, married Mary Rudd of Bolton-on-Swale, Yorkshire. They settled in Danby Wiske, a small village near Northallerton to raise their family. I searched the neighbouring parishes for William’s birth family, expanding in every growing circles with no success for many years. It seemed as if William Bulmer might have been hatched in one of the fields he farmed!
Then a search of the deed register of Yorkshire provided me with a clue to his background. William Bulmer was recorded in the register when he sold land in 1788. It was a property located in Hutton near Rudby, further away than my search circle had covered. This land was identified as having been left to William by his maternal grandfather, John Harker, of Marton, Yorkshire, an even further distance from Danby Wiske. You can read about my discovery in my post about finding A Chink in the Bulmer Brick Wall.
This discovery was an eye-opener to me and encouraged me to widen the area of my search considerably. I’ve lately found that the Bulmer family originally came from Durham and owned property in various locations throughout the Dales over the generations.
Sometimes our ancestors are ‘missing’ from their hometown because they were travelling abroad.
My great-grandmother, Eliza Taylor nee Turner, left England in November 1910 for an extended stay with her daughter’s family in Toronto, Canada, only returning to England in time to be counted in the 1911 census in Barrow-in-Furness. She departed England again in August of 1923 and died in Toronto in 1931. Knowing that she came to Canada in 1910 and died there in 1931, I initially could not figure out why I couldn’t find her in the 1911 or 1921 census of Canada. It was only when I discovered that she came to Canada, returned to England, and then returned to Canada again that it all made sense.
Sometimes the records we are searching for are just missing. They went astray, were damaged or were destroyed in the years since their creation. When that happens, we need to look to other sources for our research.
When you are just spinning your wheels looking for your ancestor in the census, consider that they might have lived in a location where there are known missing records. Search for details of known missing records in Google or look at the collection details in Ancestry for known problems.
For example, if your ancestor was living in Ashley-cum-Silverley in Cambridge in 1851, there might be a very good reason why you can’t find them in the records.
When this happens, look at city directories and other sources such as church records, parish chest records, and so on to find your ancestors in the time and place.
In the above example of a mistaken baptismal entry for my great-aunt Frances Bond, the rector wrote James Bond in the register in error but other times, there are missed entries.
Transcribers might take a break in their work and resume just one entry down, leaving an event untranscribed in the middle. Don’t rely on transcriptions but always check the originals. But even when checking the original register, it is possible the busy clergyman simply omitted an entry when they were copying their rough notes into the register. The entry can sometimes be found many pages later, recorded days, weeks or even years after the event when the rector realized their error. Read ahead!
Always check all sources for parish entries. Look at the transcriptions, the original registers and also at the copies of the registers that were submitted periodically to the Bishop (called Bishop’s Transcripts). You might find your entry in one of these, but not the others. Leave no stone (record) unturned!
The first step of the Genealogical Proof Standard is to conduct a reasonably exhaustive search but if you want to find your missing ancestors in the game of hide and seek, sometimes you must go beyond what some might consider reasonable.
Turn over every paper and hold it up to the light, look at obscure sources, consider every possibility and you may just make a breakthrough, and win the hide and seek prize.
|↑ 1.||“Ontario, Canada Deaths, 1869-1934,” database and images on-line, ancestry.ca (www.ancestry.ca : downloaded image 7 August 2007), entry for Eliza Taylor died 17 Mar 1931; Archives of Ontario. Registrations of Deaths, 1869-1934. MS 935, 496 reels.|
|↑ 2.||England, Certified Copy of an Entry of Birth (long form), Eliza Turner, 1850; General Register Office, London, England. Stourbridge vol 18: 492.|
|↑ 3.||Year: 1911; Census Place: 82 – Winnipeg, Winnipeg City, Manitoba; Page: 4; Family No: 34|
|↑ 4.||St. John’s Church Preston (Preston, Lancashire, England), Baptisms, p. 125, James Bond, son of Thomas and Alice Bond, actually Frances Bond, daughter of Thomas and Alice Bond; FHL microfilm 1,278,755.|