Your Ancestors Hiding in Plain Sight

Come out, come out wherever you are!

Do you have ancestors you can’t find?  Does it seem like they suddenly appear out of nowhere and then disappear again at will?  Are you frustrated to the point of giving up?

Well, let me tell you…been there, done that!

First off, there are multiple reasons why you aren’t finding your ancestor at all, or see them in one census and not the next.  Here are some of the more common reasons why you are dealing with these “brick walls”.

  • Census takers may have incorrectly recorded your ancestor’s information, such as name, age, date of birth, spouse’s name, children’s names; etc., or person(s) giving the census taker the same type of information did not do so correctly. Transcribing of individuals can also cause problems if they are transcribed incorrectly.


  • County and Township lines changed often between censuses during the progression and growth of our country, thus placing your ancestor in a different jurisdiction without them even moving.


  • Ancestors however, did move around, especially if they were looking for something better for their livelihood or family, or if they were in the military and were given land in another part of the country as payment for their military service.  Every once in a while, ancestors may have moved during a census year when the census was being taken, which means they would probably not show up in it.


  • Your ancestor may have lost his or her parents, or for some other reason or unavoidable circumstance, and stayed with relatives or friends of the family. Sometimes, if this is the case, your ancestor may have accidentally been lumped in with the family they are staying with, and therefore, takes on that family’s surname.


Probably one of the most frustrating is your ancestor’s name not being correctly recorded or given, especially when your ancestor came from another country.  They may have been able to speak a little English, but could have been hard to understand completely or if someone was translating for them.  Another aspect that can compound these problems, is when whomever is transcribing the information, transcribes it incorrectly.  So I understand when you are sitting there in front of your computer with no reward for your efforts, and you are asking yourself…”Why am I putting myself through this?”

The answer is simple…you know that your ancestor is there somewhere, especially when you see them in one census, and, poof, they are gone from the next census, only to have them show up in the next one after that, or they just simply seem to fall off the face of the earth.

Well, here I will outline some ways that you can track them down without really breaking a sweat.

How Do You Spell That?

In this first example, I will be using an ancestor of a woman that left a comment on my blog regarding the confusion of Jacob Muellers.  Her name is Karen (Miller) Davis…no relation, as she is related to one of the other Jacob Muellers.  She also informed me about one of her other ancestors, John M. Wetzel (1836-1895).  He was born in Indiana, and by 1860 was living in Warren County, Kentucky and his profession was recorded as an Engineer.  He was living with his wife’s family, the Morrows.  Karen told me she did know who his parents were, so I told her I’d do some digging, and, believe me, I wore out that shovel, but not before I at least found something.  I was looking specifically for census records, as John died prior to the requirement of death certificates for all states, and I could not find any birth records for him.

There are times I will look at some family trees on Ancestry for a particular ancestor, just to see if any others have found records before I go scouring through Ancestry, FamilySearch, Rootsweb or WikiTree.  I went looking through the trees for John M. Wetzel, and found that all of them had the same missing records. The 1850, 1870 & 1880 censuses.  The 1860 census was the only one that could be found.  Not that this is unusual, because I know first hand, having ancestors that appear and disappear at will.

My  3x great-grandfather, Jenkin Harris (1827-1872) and family came to the US in 1863 from Wales.  I still have not found them in the 1870 census. Jenkin died in 1872, having fallen off a railroad bridge one night, after getting intoxicated.  I found the rest of the family in 1880, right where I thought they would be.

For John Wetzel, I decided to use the best search tip for ancestors with easily misspelled last names.  When you are ready to do a search on Ancestry or FamilySearch, after you put the first name in the first name field, in the last name field, you can use ?’s (which represent a single letter character) or use the * (which can represent a group of letters in a name), instead of spelling out the last name, as you know it to be spelled or how you think it is spelled.

For John, I went with we*el in the Last Name field, and put in the rest of the information that I knew about him, and voila, the first record that appeared was the 1880 census for Green Castle, Warren County, Kentucky.  I would show that record here, but it is very faded and it would be hard to read on this blog page, but luckily, it was clear enough for me to zoom in close enough to make out the names, YOB’s and so on, including place of birth for his father and mother, both from Germany.

The last name was spelled as Webzel.

John’s occupation was Lock Keeper by 1880, which matches up with some historical books and a civil record of varied occupations, including lock keepers, of Warren County, KY.  I have not found the 1850 nor the 1870 censuses for John M. Wetzel. Want to hone your searching skills?…I am sending out a challenge to anyone that can find John in either of these censuses!  If you do, please leave a comment on this blog, and a description of how you went about finding John M. Wetzel for these censuses.

The other methods I used were as follows:

I used the spelling of Wetzel as Weitzel, Wetsel, Wechel, Wessel, Whitsel, Whitseal, Whitsell, ?etzel, ?e*el; and various other combinations.

Sometimes, your last alternative is to just leave the last name blank in the search, which I used as well.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Another method that I utilize, which I have found to be a pretty good one at that, is to “knock on the neighbor’s door”, so to speak.  Many times, our ancestors live in one place long enough, that we might be able to track down a neighbor.  If you have an ancestor who appears in one census and not the next, do a search on the neighbors who are next to your ancestor, and see if you can find them in the next census.  There may be a chance that you’ll see your ancestor next door and find their name has been misspelled or transcribed incorrectly.

Old county maps can help as well.  They let you visualize where your ancestor may have lived in relationship to their neighbors. Most of these maps are very well done and beautiful.  I found an 1877 county map of Warren County, Kentucky, when looking for John M. Wetzel, that came directly from the Library of Congress website.  Most of these types of maps have property owners on them, with just the 1st initial of their 1st name, and then the last name, like, “J. Smith”.  Using this method in conjunction with the neighbor search method mentioned above, can greatly increase your chances of finding your long lost ancestor.

Link to the Warren County Map:

Warren County Map – Library of Congress

You can find many of these types of maps if you are looking for a particular county and state just by doing an internet search.  Just do a search like this:

historical map of County Name, State

or you can also do a site specific search:

library of congress: map of County Name, State

Rounding Up Likely Suspects

For a long time, I did not know the maiden name of my 3x great-grandmother, Susan Elizabeth Miller (1837-1903). I checked for all the usual records, but none showed her maiden name, just her married name.

The method of searching I used is one I came up with, that is sort of a twist on an older “genie” search method that is known as “Surround and Conquer” –  (do an internet search on this method).  When I first starting using this method, it was to try and locate Susan.  It may not always be the case that a male ancestor finds a wife in the same place he is living, but the chances are pretty high that will be the case.  My 3x great-grandfather, John L. Miller (1835-1918), was living in Pine Grove Twp., Schuylkill Co., PA in 1850.  He was just 14 years old.  I thought if I could do a search for a Susan living in Schuylkill Co. in the 1850 census, I could come up with the most likely candidates for a female named Susan, that matched my Susan’s known age, and by possibly looking at her family’s given names of each that might match those of John and Susan’s children.

I’ll grant you that I had quite a few hits, but the best candidates were much fewer than I expected.  Well, I got lucky…I found a Susan living in Pine Grove, that was the right age and wasn’t far from John.  As it turned out, her maiden name was Miller.  So, it had not dawned on me that her last name would be the same as her husband’s. Once I made the connection, I began researching Susan’s family and found her listed on WikiTree.  I was fortunate to connect with a cousin, whose ancestor was a brother of Susan’s.

And the rest as they say is history.

If you use these search methods, chances are, you are going to get results in your search for a “lost” ancestor that are better than what you are finding right now. So, get out there on the trail of your lost ancestors and hit the “genie” ground running.

Special thanks and appreciation to Karen Davis for allowing me to use her ancestor as a subject for this blog post.

Warren County, Kentucky Map from the Library of Congress

Brian S. Miller

5 thoughts on “Your Ancestors Hiding in Plain Sight

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s