5 Reasons Why You Can’t Find Your Person Online

16 Jan 2013


Sometimes when we are searching for our ancestors in online databases, we just can’t find them. No matter how hard we look, or what databases we search, they just won’t appear. There are many reasons why this might happen. Here are a few.

1. The person is “too young.”

There are far more online records dealing with individuals who were born more than 80–100 years ago than there are for more recent individuals. This is especially true for records of birth, marriage, and death. Searching for individuals in more recent time periods often requires working outside of vital records. Newspaper announcements of births, marriages, and deaths are excellent substitutes. City and telephone directories can help you locate people, and land records can help you track people’s movements.

2. The name is unrecognizable.

It is possible that your ancestor is actually in the records your are searching, but their name is so butchered that the search engines don’t recognize what you are looking for. The handwriting in the original may be faded or illegible. Or perhaps those indexing the records misread the entry. Soundex and metaphone searches can help get past some of this, but if the consonants are too confused, or extra ones are inserted, this will throw off those types of searches. You may need to manually examine images of the original records to locate your ancestor.

3. They weren’t recorded.

Sometimes your ancestors just aren’t captured in major official records. Some people, for whatever reason, escaped recording by the census taker for example. I have researched families where city directories, land records, and vital records all established their exact place of residence during a census year, yet examination of that address in the census shows they were not recorded. Perhaps they were away, or the census taker was not vigilant. Come people did not record the births of their children. Immigrants may have been afraid of the government. Others simple hated the government and wanted nothing to do with it.

4. You are looking in the wrong place.

I was once helping someone look for her ancestor because she couldn’t find him. She knew where he lived, but couldn’t locate him in a census record. By trying a few different types of searches, I located a man with the same name living in a different state. She had dismissed this person as not being hers, but when I pulled up the image of the census, the family group indicated that this was the correct family. A map quickly demonstrated the problem. The census location was only two towns away from where she was looking, but it was on the other side of the state line. It appears that for a short time they were living in another place, with another family. Perhaps it was a relative, or perhaps they were following work. Whatever the reason, they resided there long enough to be recorded elsewhere in the census.

5. Not all records are online.

Huge number of records are now available online, courtesy of genealogical societies, government and private repositories, and commercial companies. Although a wide variety of material is available, only a tiny portion of surviving records have been digitized. Even the millions of reels of microfilm at the Family History Library that are being digitized and made available on FamilySearch represent only a small portion of records. And copyright issues prohibit a huge number of resources from being made available online. As genealogists, we cannot conduct our research without online resources. But good genealogists know that by the same token, we cannot do all of our research online. The best way to find all of the information on your ancestors is to use a combination of online records and offline resources.