Genealogy, Civil War, Lost relatives

Genealogy Isn’t Just Finding Dead People

Editor’s Note: The following post about how to find your relatives, including how to determine whether they’re alive or dead, and if they’re alive how you might find someone who appears to be “lost,” is by Denise R. Larson. This article appeared in the 12/30/2014 issue of “Genealogy Pointers.”

Genealogy is usually a vertical construct with ascending or descending generations, which uses the imagery of a soaring, multi-branched tree and its deep roots to visualize how a family has grown, spread, and at times intertwined through many generations.

There are a couple of new uses of genealogical methods that are horizontal in their approach to finding family members. One looks to the past to help adoptees find their birth parents. The other looks to the future to find lost or out-of-touch family members who can mentor a youth transitioning from foster care to adulthood.

Both types of looking-for-the-living searches use a variety of resources: hard-copy guides, directories, and documents; online databases; and personal contact over the phone and in person.

Not sure if someone is still in the land of the living?

If you already have the name of the person you’re looking for but are not sure if the person is still alive, go ahead and do an online search of the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), which was started in 1936 for persons born in 1865 or later. Several websites offer free access to the SSDI database. They can be found by doing a Google search for “Social Security Death Index.” If the person is located, then it’s time to order a copy of the Application for a Social Security Number (SS-5) to obtain all the personal information provided at the time of the application. As the Social Security Administration states on its website,, “A deceased person does not have any privacy rights.” The application can be a gold mine of names, dates, and leads as to where to look next for living relatives.

If the person’s name is not in the SSDI, chances are the person is still alive. It’s time to search the many telephone databases available online. Most are compiled with information from public records, which provide a surprising amount of personal information, including name of spouse and children, ages, last known address, and, of course, a phone number. Some of the most popular websites are the following:,,, and There are often links from these sites to other people-search sites, some of which require payment.

Family reunions can reunite lost relatives

If all you have is a last name, search for family reunions featuring that surname, especially in the region where the family lived. Nostalgia has a strong pull on the heartstrings of middle age and elderly people who feel that they might have missed out on something or someone through the years. Even if the “lost” person doesn’t attend a reunion or isn’t a member of the group, someone might have a good lead. Family genealogists are a tenacious breed of amateur detectives who will follow a family line for years and never completely give up the chase.

Elizabeth Petty Bentley and Deborah Ann Carl, authors of the Directory of Family Associations (Genealogical Publishing Co.), now in its fourth edition, gathered data on approximately 6,000 family associations in the U.S. by contacting reunion committees and one-name societies and consulting numerous newsletters, history journals, and online sources. Readers can use the directory to contact family members, examine surname migration patterns, or even share their own genealogical story.

Another benefit to family reunions is that someone who attends is sure to have printouts of census returns for family groups, especially in the hometown area. Census can give the names and ages of everyone in the family and who else lived in the neighborhood. If the family has moved, maybe the neighbor hasn’t and has kept in touch with the family. Even a Christmas card will give a current address. Online sites such as USGenWeb offer census databases through 1940.

When looking for the living, don’t forget the dead

Obituaries are a rich source of family information. Though a secondary source and prone to errors made during a stressful time, names of surviving relatives can help track down others in the family. Official death records include the name of the person who furnished information about the deceased. Maybe that person knows who or what you are looking for.

Other documents that can link deceased persons to living heirs include: property deeds, tax records, probate papers, divorce decrees, bankruptcy court files, driver and professional licenses, and church records.

Don’t overlook the obvious

In this age of technology, go global. Lori Carangelo, author of The Ultimate Search Book (Clearfield Company, 2011), advises searchers to join Facebook, MySpace, and Reunions. People know other people and word gets around. In her book, which she wrote to assist both genealogists and adopted persons looking for their biological families, she relates fascinating and sometimes bizarre stories of resourceful people who thought of unique ways to find someone. A simple but effective way was to put a letter explaining their quest in a sealed bottle and leaving it at the gravesite of the head of the family. This would be especially effective close to Memorial Day and perhaps Christmas, when graves are traditionally decorated.

Carangelo starts with 40 search tips, not just to fill in a family tree but to help in the search for missing children, adopted children, birth parents, and even people who owe you money.

Genealogy can have real life value

Casey Family Services, a nonprofit adoption agency that operates in New England and Maryland, goes the extra mile when looking for someone to help teenagers make the transition from foster care to adulthood. The agency hired a retired detective to find extended family members with whom the youth could safely stay in contact and thus be a part of a related group. The hope is that at least one person would be willing to act as a mentor as the teenager leaves foster care and finds a place to live, land a job, or continue with his or her education.

Read more about Casey Family Services’s program on their website.

Figuring out who we really are

After finding a long-lost relative, the conversation often turns to how the parties are related – first, second, third cousins once, twice, thrice removed? Great-aunt or grand-aunt? Explaining the ins and outs and twists of kinship is deftly done by Jackie Smith Arnold in Kinship: It’s All Relative. Enlarged Second Edition (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

Finding family members is what genealogy is all about. Knowing our family history can make a big difference in how we view ourselves, but meeting family members who are willing to share time and concern could make a huge difference in a young person’s life. Genealogy is all about linking together the generations of a family in a webwork of relations. Sometimes we catch a skeleton-in-the-closet, sometimes a real treasure. The joy is in the hunt, the satisfaction, in the finding.

Image Credit: Civil War gravestones at Vicksburg, By Matt Riggott [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

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