Most of the time genealogists are busy hunting for dead people and there are many avenues open for research.
However, finding living people can be way more difficult as those who have taken DNA tests are finding out. Part of the issue is modern perceptions of privacy, but a much bigger issue can be too many people with the same name without a known location or FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) club.
Recently, I’ve spent some time helping the committee working on my 50th high school class reunion. I volunteered to try to locate some of the 400+ classmates with whom people have lost contact through the years. Knowing that I’ve done genealogy research for 40+ of the 50 years that have passed, I was asked to try to locate about a dozen classmates that the committee was ready to write off as permanently lost.
I found every single one of them – either the people themselves and actually spoke to them or found addresses but no working phone number for them or found siblings/children who passed on my messages. Unfortunately, there were three classmates who have passed away just among those dozen students.
How did I manage to find people that others were unable to locate? Well, I used the same format that I use to find ancestors.
1. Being our 50th reunion, most of us were born in 1952, give or take a few months either way so I had a birth year as a starting point.
2. I obviously knew where they went to school and they all graduated in 1970.
3. I did NOT know any of their parents’ names nor for these particular classmates did I know the names of any siblings.
For the most part, I used five different resources:
- Ancestry dot com has many school yearbooks digitally available on line, including mine, so I first did a search for each person living in my town in the correct time period. (I have a yearbook, so I already knew what they looked like, but I was hoping to pick up some of Ancestry’s helpful hints.) For the most part, no hints came up, probably because they could be assumed to be living. As much as I love FamilySearch, for the purpose of locating living people, it wasn’t of much use.
- FamilyTreeNow purports to be a genealogy website, but it is really just a database of many public records. It is one of my favorite sites to find living people. After entering a name in the search box, hit enter and then an advanced search box opens to the left. Birth years can be added in there. I found about a half dozen of my missing classmates this way. Scroll down the entry once you’ve chosen a person’s name to look at more closely. First, there is a box with possible relatives. That is a huge help. Next, there is a list of possible associates. That is quite useless because I know in my own case, many of those names are people from whom my husband and I either bought or sold a house. Below that, though, there is a list of addresses at which the person has lived, followed by a list of possible phone numbers. The telephone numbers are even identified as being a landline or mobile number.
- Often, the list of relatives included people who were in their 90s or even over 100 years old. For the most part, those are parents of the person or their spouse and almost certainly have passed away before they reached the century mark. That led me to search for online obituaries. The Social Security Death Index (on Ancestry) helped to determine a death date. With their age given on FamilyTreeNow, I could figure out the year of birth and see if there was an entry in the SSDI. If the parent died from c2009 onward, obituaries were found. From those, I gleaned married names for daughters and sometimes current places of residence.
- Finding the other half of my missing friends took more energy. Again, I used the same research technique I use when I can’t find an ancestor – I built out the collateral lines. In this case, it was looking for siblings. If I couldn’t find an obituary, I went back to Ancestry and searched for just the surname of the missing person. I entered 1952 as the birth year, but then I expanded the search to my home town +/- 10 years (1942-1962). I looked for other students with the same surname who went to my high school in that 20 year time frame. Not only did I find siblings, I found several other families with the same surname who were not related, but had children at my high school during those years.
- Newspapers dot com (subscription website) was the next resource to which I turned. I know that it has my beloved Herald News in its holdings. I was able to search for the surnames in my town and narrow the scope of years. In this way, I found several engagement and wedding announcements that again added to the FAN club.
- The last person had a common name and I could find nothing about him/her except the yearbook pictures. I picked up the telephone, called the public library and spoke to a reference librarian. After I explained what I was doing, I asked if the library still had any old telephone books from c1966-1970. They had one from February 1968 and one from 1971. She read me the name and address for each entry of a family with that surname living in Wayne.
- I went back to Newspapers dot com and began entering the ADDRESS, not the surname to see if I got any hits. I did – and found a marriage record for a sibling, which led me to the out-of-state birth records for both the student and the sibling. Their father’s given name was very unusual and I was able to piece together the family. Back on Ancestry, I entered a search in all collections with the father’s name. The first entry was a family tree with just three people in it and the father’s name was in it. It was a private tree and I’m guessing that the second person was the mother and I think the third person was my missing classmate who had a username created from his/her given name plus the mother’s maiden name. I then messaged the person using Ancestry.
- Besides FamilyTreeNow, I also used FastPeopleSearch, also free. Sometimes the information matched, but in two cases, there were different telephone numbers that were more updated. However, FastPeopleSearch assumes the searcher knows where the person they are trying to find lives and only a name and location can be entered in the search box. That is why is it always my second choice.
To summarize, I look for any details about the person and then try to build out a FAN club with collateral names of parents, in-laws and siblings. Next, I seek out vital records – birth, marriage and death – helped along by online obituaries. Ancestry, the SSDI, Newspapers dot com, FamilyTreeNow and FastPeopleSearch are my favored databases.
Where were my classmates living? Everywhere from the next town over from where we graduated – to – and I almost fell off my chair when I discovered this – Tucson! One of my deceased classmates lived just a couple of doors down the same street from where we bought our first house here in 2010. She passed away in December 2009, five months before we moved to Arizona. What are the odds of that???
I hope by sharing my method for finding living people, whether they be reunion classmates or distant cousins, you’ll find it easier to find living people, too.