Solving the Mysteries in Your Family Tree: How to Find Information About Your Ancestors
By: Eve Rhett
Solving the great mysteries in my family tree was one of the first projects I undertook when starting out as a Family Historian. My historical family tree is extremely fleshed out on some branches (including a 600 page tomb of materials curated, printed and bound into a hardcover book by one of my great-uncles). Other branches, however, meet a cold hard brick wall.
As decades pass, the details surrounding things like adoptions, disappearances, and who exactly Great-Grandma was dating back in the summer of 1933 tend to be forgotten.
The branches that have just faded away into the mystery of the past have always intrigued me. So one of the things I decided to prioritize as I was getting started was applying our modern tools and resources to see if it could shed some light on those mysteries.
In one case, I was actually able to successfully track down a lot of information about the pre-adoption family of my Grandpa! In another case, I’m still knocking my head against that brick wall, but I’m hopeful with the advances in DNA genetic tracking that someday we’ll find some answers to that mystery as well.
Tips and tricks for solving the mysteries in your family tree:
1. Assessing what you already know.
First, think through and document every detail you can think of related to the mystery. Some questions to think about are:
- What names do you know?
- What family relationships are you aware of?
- What dates or general timeframe are associated with the mystery?
- What geographical details do you know? Where generally did the events occur? Where did the key people related to the mystery live? Where were they born? Where are they buried?
- Are there any family stories or legends regarding the mystery that have been passed down or discussed at family reunions for years?
- Do you have any old documents that may contain clues to solving the mystery?
2. Interviewing your family about their life and experiences.
Start talking to your family members to see if you can uncover any additional information.
- Do they have any memories regarding the mystery?
- Do they remember their parents or grandparents talking about the mystery?
- Are there any details they can recall?
- Do they know of anyone else who may have memories around those events?
Do they have any documents that may be related to the mystery?
3. Using the Internet to research your family tree.
Once you’ve collected as much information as possible surrounding the mystery you are trying to solve it’s time to surf the web (does anyone even say that anymore?).
With just a few details, you could potentially open up a world of information. I used Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com to solve one of our family mysteries. In the case of my Grandpa’s adoption, I had a handful of names, a general idea of the location and specific dates to work with. Using that information to do time and geography-bound searches for names on Newspapers.com, I was able to find an article about my Grandpa’s birth parents, specifically regarding their divorce.
With a few new details from that article, including some of my grandpa’s birth mother’s relatives, I was able to plug some new names into my family tree on Ancestry.com.
All of a sudden a bunch of new hints popped up, including census records and more news articles for many generations of that family. The most interesting thing I’ve found so far is that my 4th great Grandfather was acquitted of murder in 1850 for shooting a man who was trespassing on his property. This and other stories had been lost to our family until now!
4. Using DNA & Genetic Testing to unlock family secrets.
If the above methods have not yielded any results, we now have the option to do genetic testing to try to solve the mysteries of our family trees. One mystery I’ve been trying to solve is the case of the “Sharp Dresser from Chicago”.
The identity of my Grandmother’s father is unknown to my family. We have his name, and we know my Grandma was born in Chicago. Anecdotally we’ve heard it said that he was a “sharp dresser”. But that’s about as much as we know.
Recently a family member took one of the genetic tests available through Ancestry.com and now we can say for certain that The Sharp Dresser from Chicago was of Polish descent.
While we haven’t solved the mystery yet, I can now rule out several of the candidates I had identified through my Ancestry tree because they are not of Polish descent. Additionally, we can check from time to time to see if any new “matches” have been identified through the genetic dashboard. Someday, we may just solve the case of the Sharp Dresser from Chicago!
5. Hiring a Professional Geneologist.
I admit that this is a step that I haven’t taken yet. However, if the mysteries persist, I may eventually look into hiring a professional Geneologist to see if they can make more progress than I can on my own. If you have the means and the motivation, this may be an option you want to consider to get to the bottom of your family tree mysteries.
Solving the mysteries in your family tree can be one of the most frustrating but also one of the most rewarding aspects of being a Family Historian. By documenting every small detail that you already know, seeking out new information from your family and utilizing today’s technology, you can open up new possibilities and avenues of research that may one day solve the mystery!
Eve began her journey as a Family Historian following the Covid-19 pandemic. Glad to be back with loved ones, she spent dedicated time documenting the memories of her grandparents and aunts.