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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill --  12/8/2004

Reaching out to Extended Family

Have you thought about all the people who could possibly help you in your search for family history? Have you considered relatives not as distant as a fifteenth cousin in Kalamazoo who is a genealogy fanatic? Closer relatives may hold the clues you need to extend your own lineage. After twenty years, I finally located descendants of my great-grandmother's half-sister. While they may know nothing about their own family history, these relatives are an untapped source that I had spent years trying to locate.

Think--Who Might Have It?
Henry Schulz is your great-great-grandfather, and he died in the 1920s. If he had ten children and sixty grandchildren at his death in 1920, today he could easily have several hundred descendants spread across the country. Any of these relatives could have the family Bible, Henry's naturalization papers, or other family memorabilia. Have you contacted as many of these people as possible in your search for information on Henry? Do not focus solely on your immediate family.

A second cousin of my great-grandfather died five years ago leaving no children. The executors of her estate (who were not related) knew I was interested in family history and gave me two large envelopes of pictures, certificates, and letters. In the mid-1970s this cousin had written all her first cousins requesting family information. These letters contained names and dates I did not have. The deceased relative also kept each letter in its original envelope providing me with the residence as well. These return addresses were extremely helpful as most of the letters contained names and dates, but no locations. If others had not been aware of my interest in family history this material likely would have been eventually been put on the curb with other discarded items.

So How Do I Find These Relatives?
This week we will look at a few ways to locate these long-lost living family members who may be able to assist you with your family history research. Readers are encouraged to send additional suggestions to for possible inclusion in an upcoming column.

Estate Settlements. Was there a deceased family member who left no children? Estate records for these individuals may contain information on long-lost relatives, some of whom re-appear when an inheritance is involved. My great-great-grandmother's sister died in the 1950s with no descendants. This aunt outlived many of her nieces and nephews and even some great-nieces and great-nephews. The probate records provided me with names and addresses of over fifty relatives of my own great-great-grandmother, who had died in 1888. Estate settlements of this type are a great way to track down difficult to find family members.

Obituaries. Do you have obituaries for all family members? This can be a way to track down at least towns of residence for the children of the deceased.

Funeral Homes. The funeral home may have additional information beyond what is in the death certificate or in the obituary. Keep in mind that funeral home records are the records of the funeral home, which is not a public record-keeping agency. As a result, funeral homes are not required to share information with you. Be polite, gracious, and offer to reimburse for copies. Remember that if you live a distance from the funeral home that chances are you are not a potential client either!

Local Newspapers. If the family or person you are looking for lived in a rural or non-urban area, have you considered writing a short "letter to the editor" regarding your family history research? A simple paragraph explaining who you are looking for, their years and locations of birth and death, and your relationship to the person should be sufficient. A five-page diatribe is not necessary, nor is it necessary to include any "colorful" family stories. Large urban daily papers will most likely not publish letters of this type, but small weekly papers are more inclined to include them. These county papers the way that many former residents keep up with news from “home” and can be a good way to track down long-lost family members. I still subscribe to the weekly paper from the county where I was born and raised although at this point in my life I have lived outside the county longer than I lived in it!

Do You Have Access?
My cousin was located using a combination of online databases, message board postings, and luck. Are there online databases (particularly for more recent death records and newspapers) to which you have access, either at home or at your local library? Consider asking your local reference librarian if there are any databases at the library that could help with a search for a living family member. Have you contemplated a fourteen-day free trial to Post queries to the appropriate state and county message boards at ( And keep your eyes peeled. My biggest break on this cousin came from two words someone had included in their signature line (and it was not a surname!).

The Holidays?
With the holiday season in full swing, many genealogists take a partial break from their family history research activities. For those who feel they have to do "something" in December, consider asking family members if they know of any relatives who have "done family history" or who might have family mementos in their attic or garage. If you include a "newsletter" in your Christmas cards, consider mentioning your genealogy research (briefly) and your quest for family history items such as Bibles, certificates, etc. Make it clear that you do not want the items but would appreciate receiving copies, digital pictures, scans, or other reproductions of the items if at all possible. Provide an easy way for relatives to contact you and offer to reimburse for expenses or to take the pictures yourself if at all possible.

Be Discrete and Respectful
Relatives are more likely to share what they have if they do not think you want to take the item and claim it for yourself. I also would not mention in this same letter that you have located all five of Cousin Bob's children he had with his five girlfriends while he lived in Las Vegas.

Wrapping it Up
Remember that the living may help you with your quest to locate the dead. And that one scrap of paper or photograph may have ended up in a most unlikely place.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004,

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