10/05/2014 09:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Finding a Long-Lost Ancestor on the Streets of Chicago

I have an autograph book that belonged to my maternal grandmother. Written on the inside cover is "Anna Gustavason, 162 Townsend Street, Chicago, Ill." I can't find 162 Townsend on any map, nor can I find her on any census record. She was in N.D. High School in Chicago in 1887. She died in Orinoco, MN, in 1931. She was married to Christian Matthias Haas in Chicago. I would appreciate any help you can give me. - Judy W.


Dear Judy,

When most people think of the things they'd like a genealogist to do for them, at the top of the list would be finding a long-lost ancestor, someone whose name they've heard, but who seems to have dropped off the paper trail completely, without a trace. Truth be told, finding a lost ancestor is one of the greatest gifts that a genealogist can give to anyone. While it's true that we find lost ancestors whenever we trace a person's family tree, nothing compares with finding a person whose name you know but whose identity is shrouded in mystery--like the life and times of your maternal grandmother, Anna Gustavason. So, we have chosen your letter among the many we have received, and decided that it is time that Anna should be found, and her descendants should be reunited with her.

Today, thanks to digitization and the Internet, there are some great tools available for discovering individuals lost even in the United States Federal Census records. (Yes, as incredible as it seems, that has happened more often than one thinks possible.) In your case, you were fortunate to have some facts to go on: your grandmother's name, her street address at one point in her life, the name of her high school, and the date and place of her death. That is quite a lot of information, even if she seems to be invisible in the federal census. Always start with the few facts you know, and go from there.

Let's start with that address: 162 Townsend Street, in Chicago. With a quick search, you can find city maps online which identify both old and new locations--even places and streets in cities that no longer exist today. We'll outline a few of those options that helped us find your grandmother for you, starting with a "city directory."

City Directories

What is a city directory? Well, imagine a telephone book without telephone numbers. That is what a city directory was; residents of a city or town were listed in alphabetical order, just like they were in the phone books that followed. We can't stress how valuable these directories are when you are searching for a lost ancestor. These precursors to phone books list names of working adults, along with occupations and street addresses. Fortunately, many historical directories are now available online. Not only are city directories a marvelous source for finding individuals, but they can be used to locate schools and other institutions in any given year. We know that over the years, many street names changed. Chicago was no exception and, adding to the confusion, Chicago renumbered its streets in 1909!

We found an 1887 Chicago (Lakeside) directory on While there isn't a listing for a "Gustavason" at any Townsend address, there are several "Gustaveson" names (spelled with an "e" rather than an "a") included. Considering the fact that names are often misspelled, or spelled variously, in records, we continued to look for alternatives. There was a C.A. Gustavson at 91 Townsend. This may or may not be the individual we are looking for, but it is a logical place to start your search.


City Directories at Chicago 1887, No Gustavason listed at any Townsend address, however, there are several Gustavesons listed and a C.A. Gustavson at 91 Townsend.

Since we were looking at the 1887 Chicago Lakeside Directory, we thought it a good idea to see if we could figure out what "N.D. High School" might have been and where it was located. It would appear that N.D. stood for North Division High School, Wendell near North Wells (not far from Townsend Street).


The Chicago City Directory for 1887 found online.

The N.D school was opened in 1875 and underwent several name changes since then. It still exists, as a matter of fact, but now its name is Lincoln Park High School and its history can be found directly on the school"s current website.

Map Search for Townsend Street

A search of the historical maps at David Rumsey Map Collection shows that Townsend Street was on the North Side of Chicago located near Goose Island.


Townsend Street is highlighted in green on this historical map, but it is apparent that there is no street in Chicago by that name on contemporary maps.

Chicago Street Name Changes

Chicago history expert Daniel E. Niemiec created a wonderful website where original Chicago street names and numbering changes can be found. According to the website, Townsend Street was changed to Hudson Avenue in 1936.

A quick look at a current Chicago street map confirms that Hudson Avenue is exactly where Townsend Street used to be--in what was a predominantly Swedish neighborhood.

Swedish Contributions to Chicago

During the Civil War Era, Chicago became a magnet for Swedish immigrants. The community jumped seven-fold--from a population of 816 in 1860 to 6,154 in 1870. Construction job opportunities attracted more Swedes (as well as other groups) when the city needed rebuilding after The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. By 1890, Chicago claimed to be the world's largest Swedish city after Stockholm and Swedes comprised the third largest immigrant group after the Germans and Irish.

Finding comfort in a common language, a common culture and often a common religion, immigrants tended to cluster together in cities. Their close proximity becomes evident when you are looking at city directories and census records. Yet, while it's a good idea start a search in an ethnic neighborhood, we should not confine our searches to those places. Work opportunities, friendships and love know no boundaries. It is quite possible that Anna met her future husband outside of her own neighborhood. Locating them in census records revealed that Christian's father was German-born.

Finding Anna and Christian in Census Records

When searching for anyone in census records (or anywhere else), we begin with what we know and work backwards in time. Since your previous searches hadn't yielded desired results, we guessed that indexed spellings were the culprits. So we began with the 1930 Census, trying alternative spellings, including "Anna Hass." There she was, as Anna G. Hass (her married name), born about 1872 in Sweden (having immigrated to the United States in 1874), living in Oronoco, Minnesota, in 1930. Other identifying information included the name of her husband, Christian M. (minister) and the names and birthplaces of her children. J. Calvin Hass, the eldest, was age 20 at the time the census was taken in 1930. He and his siblings Harriet (16) and S. Herrick (14) were born in North Dakota.


A detail from the 1930 U.S. Federal Census record on highlighting the family of Anna Haas, listed as Anna Hass.

The information in the 1930 Census enabled us to locate the Haas family in the 1920 Census, living in Chester, North Dakota. It appears that their eldest child, Alice G. Haas, was 15 years old, born in New Mexico. Their son Francis was 14 and was born in South Dakota, as were his younger siblings. Using children's ages and birthplaces, it is easier to trace the family's moves across the country.

The 1910 Census finds the Haas family living in Mapleton, North Dakota with children Alice C. (5) born in New Mexico and Francis N. (4), Christian W. (2) and John C. (0-12) born in North Dakota.

Further Research Suggestions

We also searched for Anna Gustavason in earlier census records. While there are some potential identifications, it is impossible to identify your grandmother positively without knowing more about the Gustavason family.

Are there other names or clues in the autograph book that might be useful in tracking her down? Names of parents or siblings? Even tracking the names of friends who signed her autograph book might enable you to find her living near them in subsequent or previous census enumerations.

Our initial search did not yield a marriage record for Christian Haas and Anna Gustavason.

Because we found out that Christian's occupation was a minister, it's likely they were married in a church. While many church records have been digitized, many remain buried in the basement of churches. One day, we hope to digitize as many records related to ancestry tracing that we can find, but that process is still under way. The record of your grandmother's marriage may be in a written record among a church's archive, and perhaps wasn't ever registered at the county level. Does the Chicago marriage record to which you refer include any additional clues? When were they married? Witness names and the name of the clergyman who performed the ceremony can be quite useful in tracing a family's story.

As you can see, finding one clue about a lost ancestor can lead to many more discoveries. The process of tracing ancestry is a bit like walking up steps: take one step at a time. We hope that now that you have found your grandmother, Anna, you continue your search to uncover the rest of her story, and that of her ancestors. Good luck, and keep us posted about your progress!

Do you have a mystery in your own family tree? Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr and his team of Ancestry experts your question at