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How to Use Family Migration Patterns to Track Your Ancestors

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The painting "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" by Albert Bierstadt. Many families moved to new places in wagon trains like the one depicted here.

The painting "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" by Albert Bierstadt. Many families moved to new places in wagon trains like the one depicted here.


Beginning with the first colonists, every generation of Americans up through the first decades of the twentieth century had the opportunity to become pioneers by settling in newly-opened areas of the country. Many people took advantage of this opportunity to move on from the place where their parents or grandparents had settled.

Often, a few members of an extended family would push further west, sending word to those left behind that though the new country was rough, it was better than where they had been living. Eventually others within their family would decide to go to this new "promised land," putting down roots near those who were already there. Other times an entire extended family would decide to move to a frontier area together, going as a group to set up new farms or towns. This tendency for members of the same family to settle near one another as they moved to new places can become a useful tool in overcoming roadblocks in your genealogy research.

Thinking of Family Units in a Different Way

When you say "family" to the average American, their first thought is their immediate family: father, mother, brothers, sisters, spouse, and children. When you mention "relatives" or "extended family", the mind is taken to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. While "families" often move about and do things more as a unit, "relatives" do not always function in this way in our modern society. This was not necessarily true in the past, however. Historically, extended families were often of a group mentality, which is why they tended to settle in places where people related to them already lived. This is also why entire wagon trains of pioneers could be made up of people who were related to each other in one way or another, even if only by marriage. As you research your ancestors, think of them as they many times thought of themselves: as an interdependent group.

Extended families tended to settle in the same areas of the country.

Extended families tended to settle in the same areas of the country.

An Illustration

The best way to illustrate how group migration can help your research is by an example. Let us say that you have a George Abel Rawlings in your family, and you simply cannot determine who his parents were since he was married and out of the house by 1850*. There seem to be no records that tie him directly to any other Rawlings family living near him in the earliest census in which he appears. He was born in 1826 and his birth state was Ohio. He was married around 1848. He moved a couple of times in his adult life, first going from Ohio to Tennessee in the 1850s, then from Tennessee to Nebraska in the late 1860s. He died in Nebraska in 1902. (Knowing this sort of information can actually give you a good start. I would lay out all such details in front of you before starting a hunt for your ancestor's relatives.)

The first thing to do would be to look at all of the Rawlings' families listed in the census for the area where he lived in Ohio in 1850. You would write down or save in a file on your computer the names of the people in each family, their ages, and where they were born. After completing that step, you would then go to the census records for the area in Tennessee where George lived in 1860 and see if any of those same people show up there. You would also do the same with the federal census records for 1870, 1880, and 1900 for the area in which he lived in Nebraska.

Now, say while you are doing all of these comparisons, an Edgar M. Rawlings shows up twice in the same county with George, first in Ohio, and later in Nebraska. Edgar is three years older than George, was born in Ohio, and has a son who happens to be named George P. Rawlings. Both men say in the 1880 and 1900 censuses that their father was born in Pennsylvania and their mother was born in Ohio. Another point of interest is the fact both men have a daughter named Melinda K. Rawlings. A check back at Ohio records show that in 1850 there was a seventeen-year-old Melinda K. Rawlings living with a Robert and Elizabeth Rawlings in Ohio. This Melinda K. married a man named Thomas Pike in 1853. A search for Thomas and Melinda Pike in 1880 shows this same couple to be living in Nebraska, just over the county line from our George Rawlings. She has both a George and an Edgar amongst her children. At this stage the evidence points very strongly to Robert and Elizabeth being the parents of George and Edgar as well. A little digging and a query posted online (use message boards—there are often people out there who hold the answer to your questions because they have access to records that are not yet online!) yields an answer from a descendant of Melinda Rawlings Pike, who knows for a fact that Melinda had brothers named George and Edgar who were born in 1826 and 1823, respectively. You now have your match, via a woman you may not have otherwise guessed to be your George's sister.

I know the above example may seem to be overly simple, but sometimes the answer is that obvious. Many times, though, you will have fewer starting details or run into other issues that make searching this way rather difficult. I would still persist in using this method of searching, however, even if it does not seem to yield any answers at first. There are many angles that would not otherwise be considered by approaching an ancestral wall this way. I will grant, though, that this method is harder to use when one is searching for someone with a very common surname. Shared first names in a family are especially important in such a case, so be happy if your great-great-grandfather had a slightly odd name, for that can be helpful.

You can also invert the method used in the above illustration. Start with people who shared a surname with your ancestor (or their spouse, if you know the spouse's surname) and lived near your ancestor's last home, working backwards in time via census records and such to see if there is a match.

*The U.S. Censuses taken prior to 1850 only recorded the names of each head of household. The other occupants of the household were listed merely by number under the appropriate sex and age brackets. Therefore, a child who had moved out before 1850 would not appear in the census by name in his or her parents' household.

Extended Branches

Occasionally you will find only relatives who are not "immediate", such as an uncle or a cousin. Do not let that discourage you in your search. There are times when you have to find your ancestor's grandparents in order to locate the parents. If, for instance, my George Rawlings only had his Uncle Marcus Rawlings living near him, with that being proven by, say, an old newspaper clipping from the time of Uncle Marcus' death, I could still use that to find George's parents. I would begin to seek Uncle Marcus' parents, who are only mildly elusive. They end up being Samuel and Ruth Rawlings, and they died in Tennessee. Their birthplaces were Virginia and Ohio, respectively, which matches everything I have for Uncle Marcus' parents. From this point, the first thing for which I would check is a will. If there was one, that would be great! Unfortunately, no will. There are a couple of other Rawlings families in the same county where Samuel and Ruth lived, however. A check on those shows one man as a likely brother of Uncle Marcus; all the info seems to match for him to be a brother. This brother is not George's father, however, because he was only fourteen when George was born.

The other Rawlings family appears at first to be a more distant relation, or perhaps not related at all, because the head of the household, Robert, says his mother was born in North Carolina. A widowed sister who also lives with the family says the same: mother born in North Carolina. I will not throw this out yet, though. I must first check to make sure that Samuel was not married twice. Some diligent searching provides the answer that yes, Samuel was married to another lady first, and she died two years before Uncle Marcus was born. She was from North Carolina. The dates of birth for Robert and his sister are prior to the death of Samuel's first wife. With this sort of evidence, I can move Robert Rawlings and his sister from the "unlikely" category to the "probably related" category. More research eventually leads to the conclusion that Robert is, in fact, George's father.

While this may seem to be a confusing sort of mess to untangle, it does work in some cases. It is a simpler method than it seems once you train yourself to think in this way and look for clues in slightly out-of-the-way places.


Points to Consider

Since the people you find living near your ancestor may be extended family rather than immediately related, being able to discern the degree of relation (if any) is very important before attempting to come to any conclusions concerning parentage. Also, some people who had the same surname may not have been related at all, though they may have been friends of your ancestor's (friends followed one another when moving as well). Three critical questions that must be asked with every potential match are:

  1. Do the facts concerning where your ancestor and the potential siblings were born, and where their parents were born, line up in a reasonable way? A person born in a different state the same year as your ancestor is not going to be from their immediate family. Watch out for errors in the census concerning birth states, however, before throwing out a match. A person who says their mother was born in Vermont in two censuses and New York in one leaves us with the conclusion that "New York" was recorded in error. Also, other details must match as well. Most parents would not have named two of their children with the same name (in other words, if you ancestor's first name is Benjamin, and a set of potential parents have a son named Benjamin in their household that is four years younger than your ancestor, then consider this to not be a match). Of course, one big exception to that is parents would occasionally name a second child with the same first name as another if the first child had died before the second one was born. One can be easily confused by a census from 1860 saying someone's daughter Betty is five, and then in 1870 the same family have Betty listed as three. While it could be an error, it could also mean Betty#1 died, and Betty #2 was named after her a few years later. So, a potential sibling might still manage to hide, for if you went looking in the 1850 census first for Betty#2, you would find Betty#1 instead, and think you must have the wrong family. Try to make sure you have multiple sources confirm the need to rule out a family as a match, just as you would make sure through multiple sources that you had made a correct match.
  2. Are there historical documents that exist that clearly indicate a person of interest is not related to your ancestor? Primary sources such as wills can quickly give you an answer as to whether a person was a son or daughter of a potential parent in most cases. There are exceptions with such documents, however, such as your ancestor dying before the potential parent died. Do not throw out such cases unless you have other evidence that points you in a different direction.
  3. Are you not considering someone because on the surface they do not seem like a good match? Sometimes a little digging past the surface can yield interesting results. In the past, a man might marry a younger woman after the death of his first wife and have a second set of children who were much younger than the children of the first wife. If your ancestor was from such a family, you might overlook this ancestor's father simply because his wife and children seem too young to make him the right match.
The American frontier in 1848. As U.S. boundaries expanded, citizens answered the call to settle new territories.

The American frontier in 1848. As U.S. boundaries expanded, citizens answered the call to settle new territories.

Think Outside the Box

One final note I would make here is to think outside the box when you look at people with the same surname living near your ancestor. Just because you stumble upon someone else's research which says so-and-so did not have a child by that name does not mean they could not have missed something. Do not discard a possible match until you have proven absolutely that the individual is not directly related to your ancestor.

On the other hand, do not necessarily accept without question information from another person's research if they have no proof of what they are claiming. Search through historical records yourself to see whether the person is correct in their speculation or not.

While this method of research may be more time-consuming than other methods, it can yield results when other means fail—if you are willing to make the effort to look! I have searched for clues this way myself, and over time I have been rewarded with information I may not have found otherwise. Please know that using an online database with multiple types of records and a search engine is the fastest way to approach this method of research. It helps greatly when the search engine is doing most of the work for you!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Rhosynwen (author) on November 20, 2014:

@ Virginia Allain: Yes, researching an ancestor's extended family often brings answers about one's family tree that would not come any other way.

Quite frankly, it is not always possible to keep a thought flowing in five lines. What I really wish is that HP would provide the means to either let readers choose from a couple different font sizes (a feature found on many e-readers) or allow a writer the option to open up the text a bit by having 1.5 line spacing as well as single line spacing. The 1.5 size spacing does wonders in making small print more readable.

Thank-you for the feedback!

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on November 19, 2014:

I've had some good success by tracking siblings and children when I've lost my primary person. Often he or she shows up in one of their households when elderly or a few houses down in the census.

Suggestion for this hub: for elderly eyes, it would be tremendously helpful if you put an open space about ever 5 lines of text. You have a lot of reading here and that would make it easier on the eyes.

Rhosynwen (author) on May 27, 2011:

Thank-you. I have learned a lot concerning ancestry research through trial and error over the years, so I thought I'd pass what I've learned along and save others some time.

Kristen Burns-Darling from Orange County, California on May 27, 2011:

Nicely done! As my own family's resident historian and genealogist, I have to say that I love the way you have laid this out, in simple terms, and with concise easy to follow steps....Something that would have been of great use to me in the beginning of my hunt for my family's missing past. Great Hub with useful and insightful information! I will be looking for more hubs by you!