RootsTech 2015: Finding Living Relatives through Family History

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 13 March 2015

Living relatives can be a source of information, collaboration, and gathering together in family reunions.

Article Highlights

  • Sister Archibald gives three reasons to find living relatives: (1) information, (2) collaboration, and (3) reunions.
  • There are many reasons to find living relatives. Sister Archibald tells the story of using her skills and resources to help a friend find his birth mother.

“A deceased ancestor might have a relative making contributions to their information that would then lead someone else to that living relative.” —Amy Archibald 

Tracking down the dead can be a difficult job, but they can be helpful in finding the living. That’s why detective skills and online resources are a must.

Amy Archibald has been doing family history work for the past 30 years and runs a blog at revealingrootsandbranches.blogspot.com. At RootsTech 2015 in February, she taught a class on finding living relatives by doing research on dead relatives using a variety of online resources.

“Last year, at RootsTech 2014, I experienced a moment of personal revelation when I heard in my mind the words of this Old Testament scripture from Esther 4:14, ‘For … who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’” said Sister Archibald. “Later that week, as I was in a class, I experienced some additional personal revelation that I should present at RootsTech perhaps someday in the future.”

That future day came a year later at RootsTech 2015. Sister Archibald began her presentation by asking the question, “Why should we find the living?” A number of people from the audience shared some examples, but three main reasons were given: (1) information, (2) collaboration, and (3) reunions.

When people want to try to find living relatives, there are some guidelines that should be followed, said Sister Archibald. They should find out exactly who they are looking for, why they want to find them, and what they want these people to do when they find them.

Amy Archibald leads a presentation at RootsTech 2015 about using online resources to find the living among the dead.

Three questions to ask when trying to contact living relatives: Who are we looking for? Why do we want to find them? What do we want them to do?

As an example, Sister Archibald talked about reaching out to her living relatives to find out when family reunions were taking place. “Just after I got my driver’s license I drove two hours away from my home to attend a family reunion,” she said.

“Identify the living people [who are] making changes, contributing stories and photos, and attaching sources to the dead in FamilySearch Family Tree, Ancestry, and MyHeritage,” said Sister Archibald. Looking at collateral and descendant lines in a family tree for personal contact information is a great resource.

During the presentation, Sister Archibald showed attendees the Puzzilla descendancy tool found at Puzzilla.org. With the tool, people can look at the descendancy of their family tree and see where the information holes are in their family trees. “A deceased ancestor might have a relative making contributions to their information that would then lead someone else to that living relative,” said Sister Archibald. Sometimes people don’t even realize their relatives are active on FamilySearch.

Obituaries are one of the best places to find information on living relatives, said Sister Archibald. “They are a gold mine of information including names, ages, maiden names, partial addresses, kids, grandkids, brothers, and sisters. Obituaries can be found online through search engines, through mortuaries, in newspapers, and through record collections.” Ancestry.com is an example of a website that can give clues to find obituaries and has a variety of sources to pull from that contain obituaries, such as the United States Obituary Collection.

Another source for finding living relatives among the dead is to use services such as the U.S. Public Records Index, peoplefinders.com, whitepages.com, advancedbackgroundchecks.com, and other free and paid research tools, she said. Be aware that many websites charge money to deliver information and some require a monthly subscription fee.

“Once you find somebody online through public records, you can also try to find them on social media,” she said. Some people might appear on Facebook, and it makes it easy to make a connection. A person can request to be friends or send a message to a person’s inbox for a fee, but always check to see if there is a mutual friend. A mutual friend can deliver a message or encourage a person to accept a friend request.

“Many elderly people are going online so they can connect with their grandchildren,” said Sister Archibald. “Make sure that you indicate whether the page is public or private.” An example she suggested for using social media to find the living among the dead is to create a Facebook group for a dead ancestor and then invite living relatives to join the page and share information.

To operate knowledgeably online, be aware that a lot of people’s information is recorded in public records and available to the public but people who are contacted might think their information is private, she said. For collaboration online, “it’s important to go into the settings in your FamilySearch account and make sure you have indicated that you are willing to be contacted and that your information is current. If you don’t, the message that gets communicated to others is that you are unwilling to collaborate.”

Sister Archibald shared a story with Church News that illustrates how the tools outlined in her presentation can be used to help the living: “In March 2013, my high school friend posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding a sign that said he was looking for his birth family,” she said. “I took the info from his sign and also messaged him for any additional info he may have and then spent some time looking for his family online. About five hours later I messaged him and asked him if he was really ready for this step in his life and that I believed I had found his birth mother and some of her children. He said he would do whatever he could to see if it was really them.

“Using obituaries, census, marriage records, newspaper stories, online directories, and Facebook I pieced together what I believed to be his birth mother’s family. The key was the newly indexed 1940 census; I found her as a child in that census and then followed the obituaries for her parents and grandparents.

“It was exciting and overwhelming to him. I had the phone number of his birth mother and suggested he just call her and ask her. The worst that could happen was it was the wrong person. He really had nothing to lose. I also had a handful of Facebook contacts—people who I believed were his siblings. All it would take would be a quick message and a dollar to send it to the person’s inbox.

“He Facebook messaged one of the people and told them all the research I had found and asked if they could be related. Mid-morning the next day, I got a message from him: ‘I owe you my life! It was them!’

“My friend then called me and shared with me the amazing story. He had Facebook messaged a biological brother’s wife. The children never knew they had another sibling as the mother had sent the oldest children out of state when she had the baby. His birth mother had spent every day for more than 40 years thinking about him and wondering where he was. For the first time in over four decades she didn’t have to wonder where he was anymore.

“With his birth mother and birth father’s children he has about a dozen new siblings. These people, including his birth mother, have welcomed him and his family with open arms. And to make the story even richer, when I researched into his grandparents’ generation, I found that his adoptive family and his birth family were from the same place. Generations of people had unknowingly cared for one another as family.”

Since her class at RootsTech, Sister Archibald has heard from three people who have put in place some of the tools she taught in her class. They reported that in their specific circumstances they have found living cousins and the information they were seeking.