By Maurice J. Casey
The most rewarding experiences of my historical research thus far have been encounters with the families of people I research. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of unearthing an old box of documents in a rarely entered attic or watching someone’s reaction as you illuminate shadowy parts of their family history. My research examines the international connections of Irish radical women so, with a few exceptions, most of the people I research are not widely known and their families have either disengaged from politics or are completely unaware of their revolutionary lineage. As such, I have had to learn various ways of tracking these people. In this post, I outline my methodology for tracing the living descendants of obscure figures from modern history.
The most important part of any successful descendant hunt is a search for ancestors. Sites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast have popularised family history. But a large amount (I would say the majority) of the databases they use are available for free. These sites apply a slick veneer on these databases and make them more easily searchable, but there’s no need to spend money if you know the specific set of birth records, censuses, etc. that you require. You can use these to find essential contextual information, but there’s one piece of knowledge more important than all of the others. Rarely will online genealogy databases allow you to trace to the present day. But there is a way – find the death record. If you can trace your research subject in the registry of deaths, then you can find their probate record. If you find this, then you can advance onto my next (and perhaps strangest) step.
Buy a Will
In the last year, some of my oddest purchases have been the wills of people I have never met and have no connection to other than a research interest. But wills (at least in the UK and Ireland) are a matter of public record and can be purchased for roughly £10. The will is the key to finding the descendant because it will allow you to trace the inheritor of the estate, who is more often than not the same individual who was handed a crate of old letters which they have since shoved in an attic and forgotten about. It may be the case that your inheritor has since died and they themselves have an inheritor, in which case return to step 1 and trace them again.
Once you have the name of someone you believe to be the inheritor of your research subject’s archive, it’s time to begin hunting. Punch the name in search engines and databases and try to find a website with some kind of contact information. Ring a workplace, email an old class mate, or do what I once did and Facebook message every single individual with the name of your intended contact. Websites such as 192.com also provide you with phone numbers, etc. for a fee.
Fortunately, people tend to be intrigued upon hearing that someone is researching their ancestor. Nevertheless, try and have a story to tell when you first get in touch, just to get them even more curious. Alas, sometimes the next generation don’t want to be contacted. I’m afraid the only option in this case is to respect their wishes. But what can be done if steps 1 and 2 got you nowhere?
Your genealogical search will have hopefully uncovered a place of birth. Never underestimate the retention of historical memory in a local setting. Contact the nearest History Society and ask about the individual you are researching. In the Irish case, these societies are populated by enthusiastic and frequently brilliant local historians who appear to have the family trees of every local etched into their brains. But I’m sure the same can be said elsewhere.
Share your Research
If the above steps have got you no closer to finding the living descendants of the person you research, try and make them come to you. Blog about your research subject, give talks (particularly to local history societies), write articles and establish yourself as the person-who-researches-that-person. You never know who might see your talk advertised and think “hang on a second, that was my great-aunt” or spot your writing and drop you an email. Some of my most surprising connections have been made when I wasn’t seeking them.
Don’t get disheartened if it all comes to naught. For every set of family members I trace, there are five other individuals for whom the trail went cold. Ultimately, this kind of searching relies on luck and persistence in equal measure – happy hunting!
Maurice J. Casey is a second year DPhil student at Jesus College Oxford. You can find him on Twitter @MauriceJCasey or parsing through family documents in your attic.
Image: Communist Party membership cards uncovered in a home in a sleepy Oxfordshire village. Photo by Maurice J. Casey.