How To Find Those Lost Ancestors by Carol P. Christ

 carol p. christ 2002 color

Over the past year I have written several blogs on ancestor connection.  In this blog I will share what I have learned about how to find ancestors.

I recommend the popular television series Who Do You Think You Are? which has US, UK, and Australian, and other versions, and the PBS series hosted by Henry Louis Gates, African American Lives and Finding Your RootsWhile you might think, as I did, that genealogical research is about finding the names and birthplaces of ancestors, these programs set the genealogical quest in the great flow of history.

Records show that I have ancestors who immigrated to the United States from Ireland, Scotland, Prussia, and Germany in the early 1850s.  Historical research tells me that more than a million people left Ireland and Scotland in the 1850s due to the “potato famine,”* which affected the rest of Europe as well.  History explains why ancestors emigrated.

Begin your search by asking parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, for names, dates, places of residence, stories, and other information they remember.  My father remembered the names of his aunts and uncles; this helped me rule out and verify family groups .  If you are lucky, as I was, you may have a relative who researched part of your family tree.  In the 1950s, my great-uncle Emery traced the Searings to the original “settling of Michigan” and “Saratoga Springs, New York,” and to the founding of the “Hempstead Colony.” 

The next step is the internet. is a free service of the Mormon Church providing access to millions of records. Names, dates, and places can lead you to birth, marriage, death, census, and immigration records in the US, UK, and Europe.  Many of the original records can be viewed.  Careful inspection of them will reveal occupations, addresses, dates of marriage or immigration, place of origin, and other details.    

When I found “Cherry Street” written across the top of a New York on census document, a search told me that Cherry Street is in the Lower East Side of New York. Another search revealed that “the Lower East Side” was the poorest section of New York in the 1800s and early 1900s, and that Irish and German immigrants were among its early residents.  The word “tenement” on death certificates led to the discovery that tenements were crowded and disease-ridden and that they had no plumbing or heating in the 1850s.  Other relatives lived in tenements in “Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”  Williamsburg is just across the “Williamsburg Bridge” from the Lower East Side. Burial records from “Most Holy Trinity Cemetery,” led to the church of Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in BrooklynI had no idea this book described a history my grandfather’s family shared.  The movie gave me a clear, if somewhat rosy, picture of their lives.

Sometimes it takes a bit of persistence to trace an ancestor. My father told me that his grandmother’s family was Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch) or German. His great-grandfather, “Henry Iloff” told the census he was born in “Prussia” and in France in 1822 and in1820.  I finally located “Heinrich Eiloff,” born in 1820 in “St. Nicholaus, Saarland,” then in Prussia. His father had been born just across the “Saar River” in “Moselle, France.” Someone else had traced Heinrich’s mother’s family back to the 1600s in the same area, which I found incredibly exciting.  But this connection would be correct only if I had found the right Heinrich.

I have always treasured my great-uncle’s genealogical research.  However, because he did not include much historical information, I never connected his history to my life.  I did not recognize that my ancestors had lived in places I visited while living in New York and Connecticut.  I had relatives from the other side of the family who lived in “Hempstead,” and I spent two summers in “Oyster Bay,” which was settled by the “Hempstead Colony.”  I did not realize that members of the Hempstead Colony were “Puritans” like those who founded Yale Divinity School where I studied, and that many of them became “Quakers,” a group I never thought had anything to do with me.  Searches revealed that the Hempstead Colony was founded on land “purchased” from “Indians.”  A copy of the deed of sale is available online, followed by a list of the members of the colony that includes my Searing ancestor.  Town records reveal that he was later fined for selling wine to the Indians.  I was astounded how many details I could discover.

Another source is a surname search.  Typing family surnames into a search will put you in touch with others who are researching ancestors with the same surname.  If your surname is common (one of mine is “Kelly”), this may not be of much help. But if a family surname is uncommon (such as “Iloff” or “Inglis”), it can lead you directly to relatives.  I found two female third cousins,** who share common Inglis and Iloff 2x great-grandparents.  One of them sent me all of the death certificates she had collected, most of them with the notation “tenement.”  I hope to meet the other in St. Nicholaus, Saarland, where Henirich Eiloff was born. 

Online telephone books are another resource.  There are only a few Eiloffs in all of Germany, and several of them have phones in St. Nicholaus.  The one I finally got the courage to caIl remembered hearing stories of Heinrich who went to America. This confirmed that Heinrich Eiloff, born 1820 in St. Nicholaus, is my ancestor.

When I had gathered all of the information I could find on FamilySearch, I started contacting cousins and second cousins.  Only one of them had done any family research.  He had asked my grandfather’s sister to write down everything she knew about the family before she died.  This provided more information to follow up.  It is also very nice to be back in touch with Uncle Don, who is my first cousin, once removed.**

In searches, often comes up as the location of records that are only available to its members. As the membership fees for US, UK, and European records are substantial, I did not join until recently.  In the first few days, I added enormously to my family tree.  I also discovered that Ancestry is far more than a data bank. 

As soon as a member adds a name to Ancestry’s family tree form,*** the computer automatically searches for all the records that can be found for that person.  I discovered a second ancestor who is recognized by the DAR and the SAR as a participant in the Revolutionary War.  Having always thought of members of the DAR as rich, snobby women who would want to have nothing to do with me, I like, Henry Louis Gates, was quite surprised to find an ancestor who was part of the American Revolution.  This ancestor lived in Litchfield, Connecticut, a small town I loved to visit when I was in graduate school.

Ancestry also puts members in touch with other members who are searching for the same ancestors. On my very first day, I was connected to a family tree with the name Skinner, the surname of two of my mother’s first cousins.  I sent a confidential email to this Skinner and he replied that he is a son of my mother’s cousin.  This means that we probably played croquet together on my grandmother’s lawn.  Ancestry can also connect you to scores of relatives you have never known.  I think finding family is why many people renew their memberships in long after they have gathered the information they were seeking when they joined.

*Words in quotes indicate a few of the searches I have made.

 **First cousins have the same grandparents, second cousins the same great-grandparents, third cousins, the same 2x great-grandparents. “Once-removed” means you are in different generations. My first cousin once removed shares a grandmother with my father.

***Ancestry’s family tree form is available to non-members and there are other tree forms available online.  These are infinitely expandable and with them you avoid the need to keep transferring your information to bigger sheets of paper.

Carol P. Christ was featured on a WATER Teleconference on January 16, 2013 which you can listen to now.  She is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life.  She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute


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3 replies

  1. Very interesting! I keep thinking I need to start doing some family research.


  2. This is great information – thank you! I think it’s so important that we find and preserve our own family stories before they are lost to not only our families but to the world. So many of my women ancestors, in particular, had fascinating, heroic and inspiring lives (though they thought of themselves as very ordinary) and I’m sure each of us has ancestors with similar life stories..


  3. Carol, this is such a delight to read. :) It strikes me that so often in my feminist work I don’t really focus on the practical this specifically and it so wonderful to be able to learn from your experience on this matter which definitely requires some technical knowledge. Also, in the way of further building our personal communities on a slightly different, but ever interconnected, level, it seems as if this could mean a lot to me and even be one of my rituals. It takes a bit of faith to allow ourselves to believe in the connection we can have with others, including our own ancestors, but I love the idea, especially thinking of it as a spiritual journey. Thank you for your passing down this knowledge.


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