Monday, June 18, 2007

Dear Genea-Man: How do I find 20th Century people?

Genea-Man gets hard research questions sometimes, so he's going to answer them occasionally on this blog. He will also try to report progress toward the "final solution."

Q: Dear Genea-Man, my grandfather ran off from his wife and baby son back around 1920 when they lived in Los Angeles. All I know is his name, his birth date and birth place, spouse and child's name, World War I draft registration card, and that he was in aviation. How can I track him down? Do you know where he is?

A: About the only thing I can tell you for sure is that he is NOT alive. He must be dead, so there is probably a death record for him in one of the states. There may be other records that were made during his life.

The usual procedure for finding people in the 20th century is to:

1) Try to identify his parents from a birth certificate, a marriage record, a death record, an obituary or a census record. You should try to nail down his parents names, a birth date and a marriage date.

2) Search the Federal census records to try to identify the names, birth dates, birthplaces, residences, etc. of his parents and siblings.

3) Search the available death records (e.g., CA has 1905 to 2000 available online, but many states do not have theirs online) - vital records and Social Security Death Index for the parents and the siblings.

4) Try to find newspaper articles, death notices, obituaries, etc. for the parents and siblings - these might provide a clue to where he lived at a given point in time.

5) If you identify towns where he lived, then use city directories to determine a spouse's name, an occupation, an address. Follow him in the city directories until he disappears - he either died or moved out of town at that time. City directories can be found in local libraries or in regional libraries.

6) Interrogate the online commercial genealogy services like Ancestry, World Vital Records, Genealogy Bank, etc.

* Is he in the One World Tree, Ancestry World Tree or Public Members Tree on
* Did he register for the World War I draft (was he born between 1874 and 1900, available on
* Did he register for the World War II draft (information on men born before 1897 are available on
* Did he serve in the military in World War I or II?
* Is he in the "Stories and Publications" section on Ancestry?
* Is he in the Historical Obituary collection on Ancestry?
* Is he in the "Books" collection on HeritageQuestOnline?

7) Write, call or email local libraries, genealogy societies or historical societies to see if there are indexes of newspaper obituaries or cemetery listings available for the city or town he lived in. Ask them to search for your fellow. Alternatively, go there yourself and do the search.

8) Has anybody else posted queries on surname mailing lists or surname message boards about your guy?

9) What about online databases at Rootsweb WorldConnect, LDS FamilySearch,, etc?

10) Have you checked the online cemetery databases?

11) Have you Googled his name forward and backward (since many databases use last name first)?

12) If any of the above searches provide a Social Security number, then you could order his SS-5 application. If you don't have a SSN, you can still request a search - see

20th century research is very difficult in many states because the Vital Records are not readily available to researchers, especially online. Blind searches in state vital records can be costly. Not all newspapers have complete indexes of obituaries, and most don't index Death Notices in the Classified section at all.

By searching the available online resources, you can narrow the search a bit - you try to find the "last known location" and "last known year" he was alive, and then work from there in traditional records. You can take advantage of online help desks at libraries, genealogy societies and historical societies, and don't forget the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness at (free advice and lookups by volunteers).

To obtain newspaper obituaries and city directory data, you often have to contact a local repository or engage a researcher.

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