Finding Elusive Ancestors in FamilySearch Records

My Great-Grandmother is AWOL!

Have you ever had a time when you couldn’t find a family in a particular record set, like a census? You are positive the family is in a certain place but you just can’t find them on That has happened to me before! It was so frustrating I felt like filing a missing persons report! There are a variety of reasons why this can happen. Here I will explore some of those reasons and arm you with tools and strategies for finding elusive ancestors in FamilySearch records.

I will focus my example on US Census records, but many of these could apply to other record sets as well. I found my Great-Grandmother, Ruby Ruth Zufelt Crouse, in the 1910 Census, 1930 Census, and the 1940 Census. In addition, I had attached these sources to the appropriate family members in the FamilySearch Family Tree. I wanted to find the family in the 1920 Census.

Broaden Your Search

The first thing to try is simply to broaden your search. By this I mean REMOVE some of the search criteria that you entered. In the example below, I have entered my Great-Grandmother’s name, birth place, and the exact year she was born. Amazingly, I got zero results. Perhaps this is because the records where she might be found do not match a name, birthplace, or age.

Try these strategies one at a time:

  1. Expand the range of years when the individual could have been born. Ages can vary dramatically from census to census. So this simple strategy will often yield dividends. I would try a range of 5 extra years on either side of what you consider the “actual” birth year. If this gives you too many invalid results you can tighten it up a bit.
  2. Be less specific on the place. Remove the town, then the county, or even the state, if necessary. If you search for someone born in North Carolina, it may not show a census record where it was reported that he or she was born in Virginia.
  3.  For females, try replacing the maiden name with the married name. You may have more luck finding her as a married woman rather than as a child.
  4. Remove middle names, initials, etc. If you know that ancestor used their middle name instead of their first name, then remove the first name.
  5. Try spelling variants or even a wildcard. Some names have multiple spellings – even within the same family. “Standardized” spelling – particularly with family names – wasn’t really a common thing until late in the 19th century. For example, I have an ancestor whose name is spelled Clemmons, Clemens, and Clements on different documents. Typing a wildcard (*) such as “Clemen*” would return both Clemens and Clements. Just keep in mind it would also return Clementine and Clemency, etc.

These ideas are great, but what if you still can’t find the record you are looking for?

Images and Indexes

Before we move to the next strategy, we must remember that when dealing with historical record sets in genealogy they consist of both images and indexes. An organization has gone to great time and expense to image this historical records either by scanning, photographing, or other specialized equipment. The process is similar whether the source is paper or microfilm. The result of this effort is millions upon millions of images of historical records that are useful in genealogical research.

However, without the index information the images are of limited value. Adding index information suddenly makes the information searchable! Key information from the historical record is transcribed or indexed and entered into an enormous database. Then, when you perform a search the system takes the information you have input and compares it to all the information it has in its database. It even does some “‘fuzzy matching” to return results that don’t exactly match, but that are close. It does this in case the information you input is incorrect, or if the database is incorrect. However, mis-indexed records can be a real problem. Sometimes even the fuzzy matching doesn’t help you find the document you are looking for.

Mis-indexed Records

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So, what do you do when a historical record has been mis-indexed on  It can be extremely frustrating because it makes it almost impossible to search and find. Without an accurate index your ancestors are essentially “hiding” in a pile of millions of imaged records. (By the way, un-indexed images can still be useful, but the strategies are very different!).

After trying all of the strategies above to broaden the search and find Ruby Ruth Zufelt, I still got no results. I was having no luck at all finding elusive ancestors in FamilySearch records. My guess was that the record must be mis-indexed in FamilySearch.

Sometimes the best strategy for finding elusive ancestors in FamilySearch is to look somewhere else!

At this point I returned to her detail page and clicked on the Ancestry link to do a search there. Ancestry displayed the record immediately. However, the family name was indexed as “Zufeld” instead of “Zufelt.” It was actually written that way on the census record as well (no blame for the indexer this time!)


Found on in the 1920 Census

I was so happy to finally find the census! From this census I learned that by 1920, Ruby’s older brother (Samuel, age 21) was already out of the house and on his own. Perhaps more importantly, I confirmed that the family had  moved from Duncan, Greenlee County, to Phoenix, Maricopa County.

In a future post I will talk about how to get this record source attached in FamilySearch!

Please share your strategies for finding elusive ancestors in FamilySearch!

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