Using Reverse Genealogy To Find Answers and Solve Family Mysteries
What do you do when you are attempting to research an ancestor and you hit a brick wall? When no matter what avenues you investigate, you simply can’t find the records you need to reveal the answers to your family’s story?
I hit a lot of those brick walls, too– but I wasn’t looking solely for my own family’s story. I was investigating dozens of different, long-dead people, who figured into my father’s life before he met my mother.
When I began the research project that would become my book, His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, I had never heard of reverse genealogy. I discovered its techniques only through trial and error, and it was only after my manuscript was complete that I stumbled upon the term and realized that this was what I had been doing all along– out of sheer necessity.
By the time I decided to uncover the truth of my father’s past, he had been gone for more than forty years, and sadly, many of his relatives, friends, and associates had also passed away. Where could I turn for answers about the mysterious woman, Hazel Kramer, who had once been Tennessee Williams girlfriend, and who had broken young Williams’ heart when she married my dad? Who might provide me with insight about stories played out so long ago?
I quickly realized that if I wanted to uncover the truth, I would need to find living people to speak to. If my primary sources were dead, then I must find their children and grandchildren, and hope that they knew enough pieces of the story to help me make sense of the whole.
This is what reverse genealogy is– not searching backwards, into the past, but searching forward, to find living people who might have the facts you are seeking.
Here are some the sources I sought out, the strategies I employed– and how they panned out for me:
1. First and foremost– census records.
Unfortunately, the most recent census available online is the 1940 census, so this is somewhat limiting, but I still found a bounty of information in the censuses I searched through.
I was looking for people who might still be alive in Hazel’s family. I knew that she had died in 1951, and that her mother and grandparents had preceded her in death. She was an only child and she had never had children of her own. But I also knew that she had an aunt– a woman whom she had challenged in a court dispute over her grandmother’s will. Had this aunt had children? Might they still be alive?
I quickly found evidence of her two sons through the census records– but alas, also found death records for both of them. However, just a bit of Googling also uncovered for me the names of the children who these men had fathered, and one of these children I found on Facebook– now a man in his sixties.
Though it turned out that he did not know much about his second cousin, Hazel, he and his wife were able to put me in touch with his sister and another cousin who knew much more. Those contacts led to emails and phone conversations– and the exchange of much valuable information and many photographs that greatly enriched my knowledge.
One of these sources even traveled from her home in New York to meet me at my home in Virginia, and she and I have become fast friends.
2. Online Obituaries
Since the advent of the internet, obituaries are often posted online. If you discover that someone you are searching for has died in the last 15 years or so, it is often possible to find an obit through a quick Google search.
What is the benefit of this? Generally, the names and towns of survivors are listed, providing you with people to seek out and make contact with.
This is precisely how I found the grandchildren of Hazel’s biological father, who had given up his parental rights and allowed her to be adopted by her grandparents. He had remarried, and had had two more children. One of these children had fathered four children of his own.
It took me only a little bit of online searching to find addresses for all four of them. I wrote them snail-mail letters to learn if they knew anything about their Aunt Hazel. Two of them wrote back to me, and one of them continued to write to me for well over a year, and to share information and photographs. In this way, I learned a great deal about Hazel’s life in the years after she split up with my father.
I could never have uncovered all that I did about my father’s first marriage without Ancestry.
I often joke that while most people might have one or two family trees on this site, I have well over 40. Every time that I stumbled across a name in my research that I wanted to learn more about, I would make a family tree for this person. In each case, I was not interested in finding their long-departed ancestors, but rather, learning the names of their children and grandchildren so that I could make contact with them.
Because I managed to obtain a copy of Hazel’s will, I had a list of names of people to whom she had left money, Each of these people was of great interest to me.
One of the most fascinating was a man to whom she had left a small fortune. I immediately assumed he must have been her lover, and set out to find out as much about him as I possibly could.
Through creating a family tree, I discovered names of many of his cousins, as well as names of people in his ex-wife’s family. Through searching via Google and on Facebook, I was able to find and successfully contact six of these connections. Each contact that I made enriched my overall knowledge of this man.
The convoluted tale that emerged about his life and the part that he played in Hazel’s never came fully into focus– but by assembling the various stories from different informants into one narrative, I was able to make a reasonably accurate surmise as to what had happened between him and Hazel– and how their relationship may have contributed to the demise of her marriage to my father.
Without my use of reverse genealogy, I would not have been able to write the book that I did. A great deal of the information I uncovered came to me through this method.
If you have reached a place in your own genealogical searches where you’ve hit a dead end, by all means, give reverse genealogy a try.
I was always sure that somewhere out there in the world, there were living people who knew the very answers that I was seeking. All I had to do was find them– and over several years of persistent trial-and-error, I gave my all to those quests.