Genealogy Tips: Finding Lost Family Members (Not Just for Caribbean Families)

10/28/2016 10:11 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2016
Delvon Bulby Campbell

If you have been working on your family tree for a while, the time may come when you have a burning desire to connect and share your discoveries with relatives. For some people, this is easy. However, if you are not in touch with relatives in some branches of your family, this may present some challenges.

There are many reasons why family members lose track of each other. Adoption is one scenario but it’s not the only one. When some family members migrated, without modern methods of communication like the Internet and smartphones, the connection was broken. Even in the same country, if children have the same father but different mothers, it is possible for brothers and sisters in different communities to grow up without knowing each other.

One of the most common scenarios is when fathers die when their children are infants or toddlers. If the mother doesn’t live near the father’s family, as they grow up, the children may not be touch with their father’s relatives.

A bitter divorce can leave relationships so strained that paternal and maternal branches lose contact. Even conflict between siblings can cause a rift that spans generations. A generation later, first cousins don’t even know each other.

I remember introducing 2 people at an equestrian event. (They are Canadian of Irish heritage.) The man asked the lady “You were at the funeral yesterday weren’t you?” She said, “Yes that was my aunt’s funeral.” He replied, “She was my aunt too.” First cousins, the children of 2 siblings who had an argument and didn’t speak to each other for decades, were meeting for the first time.

Before You Begin

Most of your relatives will be happy that you have found them. I have been lucky. There have only been 5 family members who didn’t want to speak with me. Too bad. I am a very nice person and I have a lot of information to share with them.

There will always be a few relatives who won’t be interested in connecting. There are many reasons. In this era of Internet scams, people are understandably cautious. Perhaps they have had a negative experience with other family members. Maybe their father was abusive or he neglected his children and they want nothing to do with his family. Don’t pry. Just respect people’s boundaries. Let them know where they can find you and that you are open to connecting if they ever change their mind.

Remember, don’t take it personally. They don’t know you so it has nothing to do with you.

How to Get Started

In my blog post entitled Online Resources Help Black Families Of Caribbean Heritage Trace Their Roots, I identified some of the tools available to help you trace your lineage and find your ancestors. These same steps can help you find living relatives. Just trace each branch of your family tree forward using genealogical records. Fortunately, if you want to find lost relatives, there are on-line tools to assist you. Many of them are free.

Witnesses and Informants on Records

Pay close attention to witnesses at weddings, people who signed death certificates as informants, and family members who reported births. Even if your immediate ancestors have passed away, there may be grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins who are still alive.

We had been misinformed that my aunt had moved to England. For decades, my father and I searched in vain through UK records. Last year, I found my aunt in the USA by tracking down the person who had signed her mother’s Jamaican death certificate. White pages turned up nothing but the following sites quickly provided his contact information..... in Florida, not the UK:

He had also lost contact with my aunt but he was able to provide me with her married name. I was able to quickly pull her up in U.S. Public Records, after matching her married name, place and date of birth. I finally met her and my cousins. A dream was fulfilled.

U.S. Public Records

If you live in the USA or some of your relatives have migrated there, U.S. Public Records are your best friend. These records are generated from telephone directories, property tax assessments, credit applications, and other records that are in the public domain. U.S. Public Records list all known addresses and phone numbers as well as possible relatives.

You can access may of these records on-line:

I was able to find a 2nd cousin for one branch of my family in which the trail had gone completely cold simply by using U.S Public Records. While the last update was in 2009, my cousin and his wife had lived at the same address for decades. I just called them up. They were thrilled to hear from me. However, their son and grandchildren had no interest in connecting. It’s unfortunate as I have more information about their branch of the family than any other branch.

Other Records

Don’t forget to try:

I was successful in find the first cousin I located in one branch of my family through Superpages when a Whitepages search had not yielded any results.

Census records, electoral lists, and real estate listings can also be helpful.

Ancestry.Com and Geni

If you build your family tree on Ancestry.com, after a while, you will start getting “hints” from other people who have uploaded the same information into their family trees. (These hints appear in the form of green leaves.) Ancestry.com identifies the person who uploaded the information and you can contact them on-line. This will help you find some cousins. As people migrate around the world, you never know where family members will end up. I have written to relatives and I have had people as far away as South Africa and Ireland contact me.

DNA

I am not an expert in this area but many people have had remarkable success with DNA matches.

Jamaican musician Delvon Bulby Campbell was raised in an orphanage. Through rigorous searches using all available tools, he has identified his 24 siblings and met many of them. DNA results revealed that Delvon is 77% African with 73% from West Africa. The tests helped him find cousins who are living in Jamaica, Switzerland, Australia, Ireland, Belarus , Germany, Afghanistan, Washington State , Nova Scotia, and other places. They also revealed ancestral connections dating back to the 1600s. For example, Delvon discovered that the he is related to the 8th Duke of Argyle in Scotland. In fact, he now wears 2 kilts, for the Campbells and the Wallaces, two of Scotland's most famous ancestral clans. You can find Delvon’s story in the Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner newspaper, Family Found After 53 Years.

One never knows what DNA will uncover. By completing AncestryDNA, Ancestry.com will identify your relatives who have also completed DNA tests and your common ancestors.

For individuals who are hoping to identify African ancestors and connect with cousins on the African branches of their families, there databases still have a long way to go. Portals like African Ancestry are providing some hope. They have taken a proactive approach by going to Africa and collecting 30,000 indigenous African DNA samples.

The PBS series Who do you Think You Are? used DNA testing to help African-American actor Blair Underwood, who I discovered is married to one of my cousins, find some cousins in Africa.

Here is another success story:

DNA testing is a major breakthrough that is helping family members around the world to link up.

Leverage Facebook

You’ll be surprised at how many relatives you have on Facebook. In my family, 2 of my cousins who are now deceased, sisters, married 2 brothers. I put the surname through Facebook. Everyone who turned up was Jamaican. I reached out to the people I located. They weren’t my cousins but quick research revealed that we had mutual cousins. They were not aware of the fact that their grandfather had a brother. That brother was the father of the 2 brothers who married the girls in my family. We teamed up and eventually found our mutual cousins. In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of this journey is introducing cousins to cousins.

Leverage Facebook Groups

Facebook Groups like Jamaicans Lost & Found can be extremely helpful in tracking down lost relatives. I joined Facebook Groups for the Jamaican parishes where my family had lived. The members were very helpful and provided a lot of encouragement. Eventually, I did connect with some cousins that way.

You can also get a lot of mileage from starting your own family groups. Despite the fact that I knew no one in one branch of my family and hardly anyone in a second, I started 4 family Facebook groups, one for each grandparent. I uploaded all of the family records and information I had uncovered. I made them private but searchable so that relatives could find them.

I also was successful in finding a Facebook group for the small community in which my maternal grandfather was born and raised. I clicked on the member’s list and many had his surname. I joined the group, introduced myself and indicated that i was interested in connecting with relatives. Cousins started reaching out to me right away. I invited them to join the family group.

Two years later, I now have 97 relatives in my maternal grandfather's group and 56 members in the group for my paternal grandfather's family. I have also connected dozens of relatives off-line who are not on Facebook.

Last year, my mother, my cousins who I had recently met, and I went to our grandfather’s hometown. We received a warm welcome form our relatives. This was a dream come true and a day that I will never forget. It made my journey spanning many decades worthwhile. May you find your own journey equally rewarding.

Anne Thornley-Brown @athornleybrown, a team building facilitator and professional actress, has been working on her family tree since age 18.

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