How to Find Your Elusive Ancestor

While building your family tree, sometimes you hit the proverbial “brick wall.” You can be tracking your ancestor through census records and vital records when suddenly the person seems to disappear!

I have had that happen many times and found several different solutions to this problem. I use Ancestry.com to build my family trees because they have a vast amount of records available to search. However, there are times when even Ancestry.com cannot supply an answer.

The following are examples of why you could lose your ancestor’s trail:

Lack of Records Available Online:

As noted above, many family tree websites have an enormous amount of files to search; however, when you are looking for someone after 1939 (in England) or 1940 (in the USA), the pickings get a little sparse. The years 1939 and 1940 are the last census records to be made available by England and the US.

As with my English grandparents, James Lemon Aldous (1914 to 1991) and Gladys May Oxborough (1913 to 1977), I could find no records after the 1939 census. I tried searching the Directory listings, but these were limited to pre-1920s entries. The Newspaper section provided articles mainly in larger cities like London.

So, this is where your living relatives come into the picture. I asked my mom details about where her family lived between 1939, when they married, until their deaths. She recalled the house on Spashett Road, Haward Street, and Parade Road, where her mother ran a Bed and Breakfast. She told me that her father was a fisherman and helped the Allies during WWII by carrying supplies to the naval ships anchored at the Lowestoft port. I made sure to write down these memories so that I would have a written record for my family tree.

Your living relatives are a wealth of information. Talk to them and record their memories. In this way, you will be able to “fill in the blanks” in your ancestor’s timeline.

Incorrect Transcription of Handwritten Documents:

When searching for records on your family tree website, the transcriptionists sometimes make mistakes. Ancestry.com has a remedy for this problem. They allow you to edit and correct the misspelled words. This option makes it easier for other genealogists to find the record because you fixed the mistake.

Many times, I have removed or modified names, ages, and even the gender of the individual, which makes it easier to locate my ancestor. It may take hours of pouring through documents before you “strike paydirt,” but the result of finding this individual is worth the time and effort.

If your family tree website gives you the option of making a correction to a misspelling or incorrect data, make sure to take advantage of it. You will be helping future genealogists in their search, and, vice versa. The person who made a previous correction can help you in your search, cutting your search time down tremendously.

Name Changes or Variations:

There are many reasons that names are changed or varied on genealogical records. Most varieties of a name occur when the writer of the document “spells the name how it sounds.”

The surname Oxborough is an excellent example of this occurrence. Written as Oxborrow, Oxbrow, Oxburgh, and Oxburg, to name a few, regional dialect can also influence its spelling.

When searching your family tree website for a unique surname, always use the Soundex and Phonetic settings under the surname entry. In that way, the search results include all related spellings of the name.

Another reason for a name change could be to avoid creditors or jail. One example was when I “lost” Stephen Walter Oxborough (1848 to 1894). I knew he had married Eliza Copeman in 1868 Beccles, Suffolk, England; however, I could not find them on the 1871 England Census. I tried changing the Soundex and Phonetic settings. I tried removing his age and birthplace. Still no luck in finding them.

I finally tried removing his surname from the search. Here are the “comments” that I included on my Ancestry.com family tree on what I found:

Comment #1:

I was trying to find Stephen on the 1871 England Census, with no luck. I then decided to search for birth records on the four children born in Northumberland, again with no success.

Lorina, his daughter, is a unique name, so I removed the surname Oxborough from my search. I found a Lorina Oxborough Ward, Ward being the surname. I did the same search on Eliza, Charles, and Elizabeth, with the same results. Their official name was Ward on the BMD (birth) records.

I then went back to the 1871 England Census and typed in Stephen Walter Ward. I found Walter J (S?) Ward, Eliza (wife), William and George (sons) living in Bigges Main, Little Benton, Northumberland. Listed as a mason on the 1871 census, and as a bricklayer on all the others, I knew I had the right person. A mason and bricklayer have the same meaning.

I am not sure why Stephen changed his surname to Ward. When they moved back to Beccles, he changed his surname back to Oxborough.

I then wondered if the four children were adopted; however, on the 1911 England Census, Eliza states that she had 12 children, with 11 still living at that time.

If anyone has any ideas on why he changed his surname, please feel free to respond.

Comment #2:

Besides the four children’s birth records on the BMD, I found that his son, Charles, had listed his name as Charles Oxborough Ward on the British Army WWI Pension Records 1914-1920. He had enlisted with the army on 28 Jun 1916 and discharged on 4 Jun 1918. Why was he still using the surname Ward? The marriage and death records had the name listed as Oxborough.

Comment #3:

I have ordered the GRO birth record for son, Charles, on July 22, 2017. I should receive it back in about a week.

Comment #4:

I received the birth record back on Charles, but it contains no new information.

He was born Charles Oxborough, born on 13 Nov 1875 on 17 Fairless Street in Newcastle. His father is listed as Walter Ward and mother listed as Eliza Ward, formerly Copeman. Walter’s occupation listed as Bricklayer.

I also use the Family Trees on Ancestry.com to help in my search. When I reached out to several other members, one person sent the following email, dated 17 AUG 2017:

Hi Donna,

Thanks for your message. Yes, I think it’s the same chap, Walter Stephen Oxborough, b. 1848 in Beccles.

I haven’t found him on the 1871 census – probably because he’s changed his name (I’ll have to look into that!).

Walter was a well-known thief in the Beccles area; I’ve got newspaper articles ranging from 1864 to 1869, where he’s in court, evading police or in jail for theft. He’s probably moved up to North East England to live with family, quite possibly my Gr-Gr-Grandfather, who moved to the NE in the 1870s.

The Oxborough family was a bit of a bad bunch, with quite a few of them ending up in prison for theft.

I hope that helps.

Kind regards,
Claire Robson (nee Milne)

Documenting even the smallest details will help build your ancestor’s profile. Had it not been for Claire’s response to my inquiry, I would never have known why Stephen had changed his surname.

If your family tree website has a “notes” or “comments” section, use this to record details not included in other documents. The “comments” section on Ancestry.com is viewable to all members. The “notes” section is for information that you do not want to make public.

Other Reasons:

There are other reasons why you may not be able to find your ancestor on your family tree website. It could be that this individual immigrated to another country, where documentation is rare or non-existent. Maybe the courts deported your ancestor to Australia or the colonies. Again, you might find the court record ordering this deportation, but no available documents in that other country.

Also of note, in England anyway, prisoners and patients admitted to lunatic asylums were enumerated by their initials only. Sometimes even their birthplaces were not entered. And, in many census years, they were not counted at all.

This type of record is perhaps the most challenging to find without a lot of luck! I used the England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892, UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912, and the UK, Police Gazettes, 1812-1902, 1921-1927 to help narrow the search. Like I said, sometimes you get lucky and find your ancestor, but it does take a lot of patience to get results.

And, do you know the most prominent issue most genealogists face when tracking down their ancestors? It is when a female relative gets married. In my next article, I will discuss the different strategies that you can use to find the women in your family tree.

If you have an idea on how to find an elusive ancestor, please use the Comments Section on this page. I would love to hear from you!

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