Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Why You May Never Find
that Missing Ancestor

There are some people on your family's tree whom you're never going to fully trace. Just take that for granted. It's not because you haven't learned all the latest techniques for flushing out those mystery relatives, or that you haven't searched diligently enough. It's simply that, well, some people just...disappear.

That is the conclusion I've reached lately, when searching for the descendants of my second great-grandmother's brother, William F. Riley. You know my drill: because I'm working on identifying just where my thousands of DNA matches actually belong on my family tree, I've started this enormous project to identify all the descendants of all my ancestors. But in William's case, the going has been unexpectedly rough. And yes, one of those descendants did actually disappear—almost.

If it weren't for the phenomenal virtual assists researchers can access nowadays, I'm sure I would never have found this person's whereabouts. I still don't know the backstory on how this distant cousin of mine got from her birthplace in Indiana to the location where she died sixty-two years later. Though the distance between those two points amounted to only eight hundred miles, the site of the end of her life was worlds away from the rural setting where her days began.

There are some specific hints researchers look for when following an ancestor's life trajectory, step by step. Even moves of many miles can usually be explained by life circumstances, such as military enlistment resulting in cross-country relocation. Yet there are some life episodes which, even happening within the same city, can cause the trail to grow cold for a researcher piecing the story together, decades later. There is only so much research magic that can be conjured up, using the ten-year spacing of census records, or the happenstance of birth, marriage, or death records. Without a story line to fill in the blanks between these vital records, our ancestors sometimes take us by surprise.

Thus it was that I was able to trace the family line of Eloise Marie Lyon from her mother, Bessie Mullennix, granddaughter of the Mary Riley whose name was flagged by the Greencastle Press as complainant in a paternity suit back in 1871, and thus from Mary's father, William. But I sure wouldn't, not in a million years, have thought to look for Eloise's ill-fated future in New York City. Not, at least, when I had already established that her parents, two brothers and sister had moved in the opposite direction, to southern California.

Even if I had figured that Eloise had moved east, it is doubtful that I could have discovered her story in secretive New York, resistant as that domain has historically been to open sharing of public records. And despite Reclaim the Records' victories (which are much appreciated by this researcher), Eloise had evidently fallen into a black hole of municipal record-keeping which exists even to this day.

When I think of instances such as this, I realize that, yes, there are some ancestors whom even the most diligent researchers are going to fail to locate. Not because their efforts were misapplied, but because of the disastrous condition of the records they are seeking to find. As you'll see this week, Eloise's story is just one of thousands of examples—a story I'd never even have suspected, had I not stumbled upon a clue, thanks to a genealogy volunteer's efforts to shine some light.

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