Missing ancestors are not so unusual

Have you a relative or ancestor who disappeared and was never heard from again?  

I was recently contacted by a reader who is trying to locate a missing person from a family tree.  The man vanished in 1936, leaving no trace. While traumatic to his family, this wasn’t quite as unusual as it sounds. I also had a missing person in my tree and have a friend with one in his.  

In today’s modern world, disappearing is almost impossible barring the Witness Protection Program.  It was much easier to disappear in past years in a world where there were no cell phones, credit or debit cards, Social Security numbers, GPS units in cars, and even the exercise bracelets on so many wrists.  In this modern world, it seems like someone, somewhere, always can track us.

In the past a person could just leave, and if he never communicated with anyone he’d known in a prior life he could just vanish.  In my friend’s case, his great-grandfather abandoned the family and never came back, eerily like the reader’s story. My friend is fairly certain he’s located his ancestor living in Canada with another wife and family, but he can’t be 100 percent sure.  Only DNA tests by both sets of possible descendants could prove for certain that the two men were one and the same.

Unless you believe in the “snatched by a flying saucer” scenario, what can you realistically do to find a relative who disappeared?  If he/she kept their name you can search census records to try to find possible leads, though if your ancestor had a common name such as John Smith it probably won’t help you much.   If he or she (it’s usually a he who disappears) took a different name, it is almost impossible to find them again unless you have a truly lucky break.

You can check their hometowns for any clues such as mention in a local newspaper of a disappearance, though many families probably kept mum, thinking it a disgrace. You can even inquire of local police or sheriffs to see if any old records might exist.  Often missing-person reports were kept for years in case remains were found and a person could be identified through bits of clothing or personal items, and you might be fortunate enough to see what, if anything, the local police discovered.

The reasons why someone would just go are speculative, but they can include problems with a spouse, another woman or man in the picture, the burden of supporting a family becoming overwhelming particularly if it was a large family, mental issues, serial bigamy, or foul play.  

The truth is these lost ancestors are among the coldest cases for genealogists to tackle, and often there are no results no matter how thorough the search.  Unless DNA tests lead to other living descendants, you probably never will know for certain what happened, and that branch of the tree will remain empty.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society. Reader emails are welcome at Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Caribou Library at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.

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