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24 Aug 2016

Genealogy Potluck Picnic: Creating Speculative Searches to Find Missing Records Online

or Inspiration in Family History
In this day and age we live with a multitude of resources at our finger-tips, some would say too many.  There are 55 million records for William Jones on Ancestry, and 100 million entries for Elizabeth Smith, for example.
With all this content, I never want to leave holes in the middle of my family tree. I'm always on the look-out for something to move the story forward and today I'm making the case for good old-fashioned guesswork - supposition, if you will.  I'll show how using your intuition, and posing 'what if?' questions is a valuable dish to bring to your internet meal.

Our first two cases come from Wales.  Nowhere is 'just supposing' more needed, with a distinct shortage of names, few middles and a lack of other identifying criteria make progress a big challenge - until now!

What if.... family rumour was right after all?
When my mother's third cousin Sue let me see the family bible in Wales, 1997, I was pretty happy.  At last we'd get some clues about older members of the family, who were lost in the midst of time.
  She married a Hubbard in Swansea.
  She was born in Marloes, and her daughter Mary will be missing from the family home age 22..

These rumours from the family were just not helping.  There was no trace of Mary or Ann with the information provided from the bible, in the census and in death records.  Was it plain wrong?

Frustrated at the poor quality information about Mrs Hubbard I parked these notes.  One day, after coming back from my Aunt's house and seeing a copy of the rumours, I gave in and clicked on the nine possible marriages in Wales, and there in front of my eyes, was the groom, Mr Hebbard! (Mary had lopped five years off her age and faked her spinsterhood to make sure the marriage to this teenager went ahead.  Facts that were missing from the family bible!)
Ann Francis (born 1815) was still a puzzle.  In desperation, I looked at a map of Merthyr Tydfil, where she must have gotten married, hoping it would somehow help.  I noticed a community called Morlais.  What if Ann's birthplace had been misrecorded as Morlais, not Marloes?  Sure enough in 1871, the enumerator makes that exact error, and she is solved:
Mrs Ann Jenkins, age 55, born Morlais Pembrokeshire
But now there was the problem of Ann's missing daughter Mary Jenkins, who was not at home in the census aged 22.  What a common name!  How on earth was I going to find her?  I used my knowledge of the community to help me.  Nobody was going to afford servants or have an unmarried woman laying around the house.  If she wasn't at home, there were two options: dead or married.  So, let's see if she was married.  There were 40 married Marys in Merthyr of the right age in 1861 on FindMyPast - step away from the census, that's too many!  Yet, a simple click showed the first Mary had a baby boy Thomas Francis Bromham, bearing the family name of Francis.  Logic had paid off, but with the downside that I needed to fork out £9.25 in the form of a certified marriage document as proof.
Family rumour had been correct, and with some intuition about a tired census-taker muddling the place names, and the unlikelihood of a young unmarried woman floating around a town of ironworkers, our three mysteries had been solved.

Just suppose... there was a way in?
Still thinking about Wales, I was visiting a cloudy Black Sea coast town in the summer of 2012.  Hillary Clinton, who herself has ancestry from Merthyr Tydfil, had recently honoured an American study area in the town.  Around its black formica tables were gathered a number of Brits and Americans, soaking up the free WiFi and congenial company.  But my attention was elsewhere.
I was deep in nineteenth-century Wales.  I had fought tooth and nail to establish some kin of my ancestress Ann Morgan, born 1761, and I wasn't about to let them slip away.  I needed answers about Ann's five nieces, the Rees girls.  The way I saw it there was just one way forward.  Just suppose a Rees girl had decided to honour their father, Morgan Rees, and give his names to one of her sons?  I thought it was definitely worth a speculative try, on FamilySearch.
As if by magic, an entry appeared, Morgan Rees Price born in the Vale of Neath, 1810, son of Jenkin Price and his wife Jennet, formerly Rees.  This couple have quite a story to tell, running away to Bristol to marry and then becoming proprietors of Rutland Arms in the heart of Swansea.  I would never have found them without this imaginative work-around.  They will at some point get their own article.

I later repeated this strategy (2016) to find what became of her cousin, another Jennet - this time I thought she might have a son called Anthony.  She did.  So after eight years, I had a workable line taking me from Gwenllian Rees born 1751 to the Mid Wales Hotel in Knighton, Radnorshire 1930s and from this to relatives in the town this very day.

What if... I've been looking in the wrong country
Francis Harris, born Cornwall 1818, had been on my tree for years, but I wasn't convinced I had his story straight.  Living an ordinary life in a Cornish town?  I felt that my Harrises would work up a bit more wanderlust than that.  When I spotted another Francis born in the same year, I was even more suspicious I had mistaken identity.  I got my first wind of a missing uncle, and I was determined to hunt him down!

He flourished in the 1840s and at this time, America was definitely calling.  Not to mention Oz, Mexico and anywhere with ground worth mining.  So what if Francis had come to the States and had a family out there – after all I realised, his sister wouldn't be far away.  How come he had slipped through the records!  And here was the little entry I needed, the 1850 census from FamilySearch for Grant county, Wisconsin, a well known Cornish hang-out:
Even though there's nothing to trace this man to Cornwall, his wife Phillippi Rowe can be directly linked to Crowan, Cornwall, about 2 miles from where Francis was born.  Hmm!  I think this speculative search was successful.  But that wasn't all, dunking his name back into Google's watery index and there is plenty more on our uncle...
His 3x great-grandson Jonah Harris and myself exchanged emails over Christmas last year with snaps of our respective family gatherings and the food we were having (Brits on the left).
"What if?" had worked out for us.

What if... a puzzling initial could lead me to a missing cousin
Percy Creed Bell was born in 1874 at Abersychan, South Wales and disappears from every record available aged 16.  It is very odd to realise that his closest living relative is now my grandmother (and a chap called Alec in Glastonbury).  I found a trace of a plausible fellow out in the western States, name of Percy H. Bell, real estate agent, who sometimes gave Wales as his birthplace.  Could this be him?  I could find nothing at all to link the two men, except that no other record matched either one of them.

I got to thinking about the 'H'.  No offence, but Creed is a terrible middle name and maybe Percy had thrown it overboard along with his British identity. Percibly.

So, what if, he was really the Percy H. Bell all along?  And what then, might the H be?  By the way, this story hasn't even begun.  With Google's search bar waiting, I realised his grandma's maiden name, Hammond, would fit the gap.  And so I entered his name into Google...

Poor Percy Hammond Bell existed alright.  As a dapper young Brit, with soft pale skin (if he was anything like my Great-grandpa), he was learning Cantonese in rough parts of Los Angeles when he witnessed the slaying of Chinese gangland boss Wong Wee Chee, 1896.  The name of the murderer was whispered in his young ear, which sealed his fate.  LA was not going to be a nice place for Percy.  No sir.


The trial papers gave his parents' location as Ipswich, England, which fitted the facts.  Percy never again lived in LA.  His elder son was swept away in the Columbia river, 1920, and he himself was convicted of fraud ten years later in Oregon.  The whole family died out, leaving as mentioned, my grandmother as theoretical next-of-kin.

Just suppose.... the shipping list had a sister on it?
When Doug Jones sailed to Toronto in 1952, his parents came too.  I noted down all the details and very quickly had an email address for his son in Ontario, but nothing more came of that, and the email address no longer works.  Back to the drawing-board, then.

I got to thinking, as Doug's parents had come out with him, what about sister Peggy, just suppose she had come out as well.  She had definitely gone to Canada, according to the nosey-parker relatives back in Wales.

I had no easy way of finding Margaret Jones born 1919 and known as Peggy, but what if she was on that same boat, the Empress of Canada, the same day, with her parents and brother?  That could reveal plenty.  It was worth a search, on Ancestry, surely?

From this:
To this:

So, we were correct.  Margaret Jones became Margaret Roberts.  From the most common name in Wales to the sixth most common – progress!  This slender thread was enough to find her grandchildren in the Rocky Mountains, see Riddle of the Timeshare for more.  Without the helpful search of migration records, I'd still be scratching my head at Liverpool Docks.

For more successful speculation (after all, searching is free!) look out for the next article: What if the impossible is possible?

For more blog entries on this theme see: Genealogy Blog Potluck Picnic hosted by Elizabeth O'Neal.

And why not tarry awhile here on my blog: there are some great articles here and some terrible ones too.  Try the Popular Posts as a starting point.


  1. I love your success stories in Wales. My husband has Roger Williams - not the one in Rhode Island, but in Cumberland County, Virginia by 1749. He seems to be the son of another Roger Williams, said to be the immigrant from Wales, born probably 1670-1690 time frame, but I've never gone looking for him due to stories about difficulties searching Welsh records.

  2. What woman hasn't "lopped five years" off her her age at some point? ;-) Thank you for a great story, and for participating in the August Genealogy Blog Party!

  3. 1600s is certainly early, but then one can take heart from the story in Alex Haley's Roots of how a family member (in this case from Gambia) who ended up in the US, had never been forgotten by those back home. I am no expert on this timeframe in Wales, if I find a book which is informative and suitable for a lay reader I will post back here. Feel free to click on my 'Wales' tags to read more, though mine are (mostly) a lot later. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Your post provides new inspiration for me to come up with some speculative search methods for some of the mystery people in my own tree. One man for example cites a different father on different documents. Arriving to the U.S. in the early 1900s and migrating to fairly uncivilized North Dakota, it seems like a person could be who they said they were simply because there weren't any resources to contradict them.

    1. Some problems are like a favourite tree for beavers. You just have to keep coming back and gnawing away at them!

  5. Great idea! Often family stories have at least some basis in fact. Your experiences are inspiring me to dig a little deeper.

  6. Sometimes the impossible is the easiest part. I hope Professor Inspiration and Lady Luck decide to join you on your journey!


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