Raise your hands if you have an ancestor who disappeared from the records of a specific locality without the courtesy of a forwarding address. I bet most of you are raising your hands right now! Migrating ancestors can present quite a challenge to genealogists at times as they pick up and move, sometimes seemingly without specific purpose or to a location that doesn't make immediate sense. At least, that is, until we really dig into the records and piece together the when, where, why and how of everything surrounding the family's migration.
So where do you look next when your family disappears from the records of a town or county?
Thoroughly investigate all available census records, including state or local census records. Be sure, first of all, that your ancestor really did disappear from the records and that you didn't just miss him in a subsequent census because his name was mangled or he appears in a household that you don't recognize. Corroborate the move out of the jurisdiction with other records - expanding your search forward in time at least ten years to be sure nothing was recorded later than you might have expected. Use state and local census records, if available, to further pinpoint the time frame when your ancestor likely left the area.
Next make a list of at least 10 neighbors on each side of your ancestor from the last census in which you found him. Then move forward to the next available census and look up each of these neighbors to see if any of them may have also left the area around the same time as your ancestor. Friends and neighbors often migrated in groups, or followed each other to new locations, so sometimes the documentation of these individuals can help you to trace your own migrating ancestors.
Land records are definitely a must if there is a chance your ancestor owned property. Be sure to check the deed indexes for at least 10-20 years after your ancestor departed the area, as they may not have sold the land prior to or immediately after their departure. It's not uncommon for individuals to be found selling land many years after they have left an area, often through an agent. Such a deed, if found, will often mention the current residence of the land owner.
If you don't find anything for your ancestor in the land records, or even if he was only a renter and not a land owner, check the deed indexes for his neighbors - especially if your census research pointed to any who also moved out of the area. This goes for other relatives as well - land transactions of siblings, in-laws, parents and other family members may also hold clues to the whereabouts of your ancestor.
If tax records are available, use them to help further pinpoint the time frame for your ancestor's residence in the locality. These can be helpful even for ancestors who did not own property as a variety of tax records may exist, including poll taxes and rent rolls.
If your ancestor had parents or other family who remained in the area, investigate will and probate records for clues to your ancestor's new location. If they are involved in some way, the court will have tried to track them down.
Church records, especially minutes and membership rolls, may provide important information such as admissions and dismissals from a particular parish.
Expand your search to adjoining jurisdictions. The county or state boundary may have moved, so your ancestor's land may put him in a new jurisdiction without him ever moving an inch. It is also possible that circumstances, such as construction of a new road or a job in a different town, may have prompted him to start transacting his business in a different jurisdiction, even with no change of residence. Or he may have acquired new land (which should have shown up in your prior search for land records) such that the new land stretched his holdings across a new county or state boundary, or he may have just picked up and moved down the road.
When other avenues fail, turn to the Internet. Online databases make it easy to search across multiple locations and sometimes a "wide net" can achieve wonderful results. The William Eckles living in Vermont in 1870, for example, may very well be the same William Eckles living in Minnesota in 1880. Don't just assume that someone of the same name, age and birth place is your ancestor, however. Follow up such individuals as you find them in other records, using what you know about your ancestor to make sure that the two individuals are one and the same. Verify that the William Eckles in Minnesota in 1880 wasn't also in Minnesota in 1870 and 1860 (when your William Eckles was in Vermont). Make sure other details also match up, such as place of birth for the parents, occupation, etc. Investigate records for the new William Eckles in Minnesota - especially tax, census and land records - to document his likely arrival in the area. Look for records of family members, neighbors and other associates in both locations who might tie the two together. You get the idea.
Do you have suggestions for tracing migrating ancestors? Please share them in the comments below!