Common Stumbling Blocks When Tracing Family Ties

Genealogy is a fascinating topic and becoming increasingly popular as we strive to trace our ancestry and understand where we’ve come from. The advent of the Internet with dedicated genealogy websites has made access to information on individual family trees more simplified and accessible than ever before. Despite this vast expanse of information, however, we will still encounter stumbling blocks.

We can be making great progress in tracing our family tree only to be unexpectedly confronted with a trail that goes cold. This may be the discovery of family members who have been adopted, which makes them difficult to trace.

In addition, families descended from African-American slaves will find seemingly insurmountable hurdles in their way, such as a dearth of official records, changed names or even evidence of records that have been destroyed. In some cases births may not have been registered or an itinerant ancestor may have avoided every census. Perhaps your search reveals too many people from different families, all with identical or very similar names.

While it may be extremely discouraging initially, solutions are available to enable you to get back on track with your family tree.

It is essential to have as much information available as possible. For example, if an avenue of investigation dries up and you fail to discover a certain birth certificate, is there a way of finding it through a brother, sister or other close relative? Are you certain of the name of your relative or could it have been a nickname? What were their backgrounds; were they laborers or landowners? If you are seeking evidence of a marriage, can you narrow the location down to a specific geography? By eliminating the options you know to be incorrect you may be able to make an educated guess. Don’t be frustrated if you do find yourself having to retrace your steps. This is often the nature of genealogy.

Tracing Enslaved Ancestors


Tracing ancestors who were slaves will probably prove more challenging.

Initially, you may wish to try tracing your family back to the American Civil War. This can be done via census records and other sources. Ideally, you’ll need a list of the given names of the family members you are investigating. Try to identify which of them may have been slaves. If you are aware of the slaveholder’s family name, begin with that name in your search, as slaves often kept their slaveholder’s surname. This is not a given, however.

Tracing your enslaved ancestors is a complex process. As a guide you will need to ascertain where your ancestors were living as far back as possible. You may also need to search the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules. The challenge is that here, slaves are listed by sex, age and color under their slaveholder’s name only.

Slave schedules for 1850 are freely available at Family while can provide the slave schedules for both 1850 and 1860, although this is a subscription site.

If you feel you have sufficient evidence, you may wish to research the slaveholder’s family to trace your ancestor. Be aware, however, that some freed slaves moved to different areas after the Civil War. Their slaveholding family may also have moved away.

As a note of caution, try to avoid making your search “fit.” There are several variables that can impact your search. Minor errors on names, locations and age may all prove problematic.

If all else fails, retrace your steps, reexamine all of the facts at your disposal and begin the search again.

Adopted Relatives

As a rough estimate, around 2% of the American population is adopted, so it is inevitable that this hurdle may arise at some point during your genealogical project.

While each case is unique, several avenues are available to help in locating the adoptee.

Approach your search as you would when tracing your normal family tree by speaking to relatives and unearthing as much information as possible on the name of the child at birth and of the adoptive parents. By tracing where he or she lives, the date of the parents’ marriage and current address through normal census records you may find your relative fairly quickly.

If records are difficult to access, advice and information is available from both the state foster care agency and adoption agency. Federal and state public records found at the Public Records Center will also provide information, and various online support groups offer guidance and advice. As a last resort you may wish to post photographs on specialist websites to help locate your missing family member.

DNA testing will also prove a useful tool in these cases as you can prove without doubt whether or not the person you find is your long lost relative. It is vital to remain sensitive to the wishes of that person. Some people may not wish to be contacted, in which case, their desires must take precedence. In time, they may have a change of heart.

Tracing a family tree isn’t a quick process. It takes huge reserves of time, patience and attention to detail. If one avenue seems to close, look for others that are open; you may be required to continually think “outside of the box.” Don’t be surprised if your new project evolves into a lifelong passion.