The Genealogical Universe

Navigating the black holes of ancestry

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Using Collateral Ancestors to Solve Genealogical Puzzles

Genealogical roadblocks in direct line ancestry is not uncommon. The game is how to complete the puzzle by shuffling the pieces. Known puzzle pieces in genealogy include collateral lines. These are ancestors not directly related but form part of the family tree. They include the aunts, uncles, and cousins that span several generations.

The best way to use collateral ancestors is through the vital records. For example, if the surname of maternal grandmother is missing, check the birth, marriage and death records for all her children and siblings. Why? What may be missing from your direct line ancestor may be included in the ancestry of an aunt or great-uncle. Suddenly, the missing piece fits in place to complete one generation and offers clues for the next.

Don’t limit searches to vital records though. Broaden searches to include quitclaim and land deeds, wills, military pensions, bibles of other family members, letters, diaries, passenger departure and arrival records, passports, and newspapers. Each one of these sources can offer a wealth of information. Passenger departure and arrival records sometimes reveal the place from which an ancestor lived plus the names of parents or siblings of an immigrant. Newspapers can link ancestor to parents through sibling obituaries. Quitclaim or lands deeds may reveal an earlier residence of a family member or the passing of property between collateral ancestors.

It all comes down creative researching and using collateral ancestry may be one way to circumvent a roadblock in order to solve a genealogical problem.

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Genealogy is Only As Good as the Name

One area where fledgling genealogists get tripped up is the ancestral names of their family and this is where creativity comes into play. Take a straightforward surname like Hayer. At first glance, there is one obvious name variants: Heyer. However, there are more because this surname may trace back to Norway and the name has been anglicized. Variants in genealogical records include Heier, Hejer, and even Hoyer.

When researching genealogical lines, one always has to remember that surnames, like language, change over time and family members can and often do, spell their surname differently. Siblings within the Ranney family spell their name Rainey, Raney, Renny, and Ramey and when you broaden that research over generations, the surname appears as Rheny.

Even more extremes appear in Irish names such as McHugh which may be listed as McCue, McKew, McQue, McCugh, McGue, McGeough, McGough, and Hughes. Many Irish names over time dropped the “Mc” or the “O”. O’Beirne might be Beirne, Berne, Bern, Byrne, Burn(s). Quinlan spells Quiglen or even Quinlaw.

In some cases, especially in long Slavic or Italian names, surnames become shortened. For example, Ardolino shortens to Adolino. German names, especially during WWI, immigrants changed their names to be less German sounding. Weiss translates White. Fuchs might be Fox.

While these only tip the surface of surname development, examine primary records such as census records, with an open mind. If it’s similar, but not exact, don’t pass it by. It just might be the elusive ancestor missing from the family tree.

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Using City Directories to Recreate Your Family Tree

When my great-grandfather came to the United States from Ireland, it was believed he had no other family who migrated to Rhode Island. However, federal census records revealed something different. He actually had a cousin with whom he lived at the same address for about 30 years. In addition, that cousin also had a brother who died 15 years after arriving in Providence, Rhode Island. These family members were lost when my great-grandfather and his children died and it was not until I began my ancestral quest, they were rediscovered. The question became, if there were two other family members, were their more and how could I reconstruct the family tree?

Luckily, in Rhode Island, the state census came out every five years after the federal census and enabled me to trace the two families through their addresses. To supplement the numerous residential moves, I then looked to the city directories which came out every one or two years. Matching addresses, I discovered additional brothers and cousins, who, when they emigrated to America, came to live with my cousin and/or his brother. I probably would not have found them had I not been curious enough to dig deeper into the black hole. From the information I gleaned, I was able to build a family tree that connected the families through vital records.

Lesson learned: Check out those underused directories at Not only will you discover your immediate family, you may also find uncles, aunts, and cousins which will help blast through your black hole.

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