How to Find Your Ancestor by Researching Other People

Most of us don’t have unlimited time to spend researching our ancestors. It’s natural to want to spend our research time focused on our ancestors. But when we aren’t finding the answers we’re looking for, it can be well worth our time to start researching other people — people who may not even be related to us.

Why You Want to Research Other People

Our ancestors did not live in a vacuum. They had extended family members, neighbors, business contacts, friends, and maybe an enemy or two. (Elizabeth Shown Mills refers to these "other" people as a person's FAN club -- friends, associates, and neighbors.) This has implications for us in two ways:

  • People tend to do things in groups.​
  • People tend to follow predictable patterns of who they associate with.

Both of these can benefit our research. In genealogy, researching one member of a group can lead to answers about another member of the group. We can piggyback onto these "other" people to find the people we're really looking for.

Predictable Patterns

Predictable pattern

Our ancestors often fall in a predictable pattern.

When I say that people tend to follow predictable patterns about who they associate with, I’m not referring to naming patterns. I mean that there are norms that people tend to follow. For example, people don’t usually have complete strangers as godparents for their children. People don’t usually have complete strangers as witnesses to their marriage. (The exception being if they are eloping. In that case, they just might grab the nearest two people to act as witnesses!)

Research those godparents and those witnesses as if they were your ancestors. Who were their parents? Where did they come from? Who did they marry? Answering these questions can lead to answers for your ancestors.​

Let’s say that Robert and Clara Smith had a son. When they had him baptized, they named William Jones as the godfather. How does William Jones fit into this scenario? Could he be Clara’s brother? Maybe he married one of Robert’s sisters. Maybe he married one of Clara’s sisters. By researching William — a man with a surname that doesn’t seem to fit in this family — we could find more answers about Robert and Clara Smith.​

Acting in a Group

Many of us have a tale of migration in our family. (“Great-great-grandpa came to the United States from Italy.”) The part that is often overlooked is that great-great-grandpa likely didn’t do it in isolation. Chances are he either came here with a group of people and/or he was moving to an area where he already knew people.

This doesn’t just apply to moving to a new country. Our ancestors’ migration within a country (or even within a state) is often part of a group migration (people moving together all at once) or a chain migration (a few people go out ahead and other people follow later). We can use this to our advantage.​

My ancestor John Ramsey died in Fairfield County, Ohio circa 1810. He left a widow named Elizabeth along with children Elizabeth, Sarah, Thomas, Rebecca, John, Mary, and James. Based upon his children’s later census records, it appeared that he was born in Pennsylvania. Do you know how many John Ramseys are in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s? More than I wanted to try to trace.​

However, looking at John’s land and tax records in Ohio along with various records for Elizabeth, people with the surname Pedan kept popping up. Who are they?

Looking at the 1800 census of Pennsylvania, I found a Samuel Pedan living in Hamiltonban Township, Adams County. There was also a John Ramsey living in that same township. My next task was to research this Samuel Pedan.

I found a will for Samuel in Adams County. Written in August 1802, he named the following heirs:

  • my son John Pedan
  • my son in law James White
  • my son in law John Ramsey
  • my daughter Sarah Pedan
  • my granddaughter Elizabeth White
  • my daughter Gressy
  • my two daughters Sarah and Susanah
  • my grandson Samuel Ramsey
  • my grandson Thomas Ramsey
  • my granddaughters Elizabeth Ramsey and Elizabeth Pedan and grandson Samuel Bougle
  • my children Elizabeth Ramsey Gressy Peden Rebekah Bougle John Pedan Sarah Pedan and Susan Pedan”
  • [also mentioned “my deceased daughter Mary White”]
Will of Samuel Pedan

         Part of the will of Samuel Pedan, Will Book A:139-140, Adams County, Pennsylvania. Image from Family History Library microfilm 20677.

Oh, and for good measure, the Bougles (or “Bogle” as it usually is listed in Fairfield and Perry County, Ohio) also show up routinely in John and Elizabeth’s records in Ohio.

By following the Pedans — a surname that I didn’t know how it connected to my John and Elizabeth Ramsey — I not only found where John came from in Pennsylvania before coming to Ohio, but I also identified Elizabeth’s maiden name and the name of her father.

Finding Your Ancestor by Researching Other People

When we remember that our ancestors didn’t live in vacuums and that those “other” people can yield the answers that we’re seeking, we can knock down some of those brick walls. It may seem like a waste of our valuable research time to research people who we don’t even know are related, but it can be time well spent.

How to Find Your Ancestor by Researching Other People

If researching your ancestor doesn't yield the answers you're looking for, try researching the other people in his life. Here's why and how.

Posted: September 15, 2016.

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  • Great tips and such interesting, real-life examples! Thank you for sharing; I know I’ll be using this strategy soon. –Brian Lair

  • Once I had someone in my extended family who left my ancestor’s village in Germany for USA. So I typed in his name in Passenger Lists and found a transcription of all passengers for a ship from Le Havre (France) to NYC. And there I saw that only on that one ship there were around 20 people with three or four surnames I knew from my tree…. And a drama was also going on on the ship. One of the women died on board, so her hubby not only had to get along in the new country, but also had to care for his two daughters of 3 and 5. I still haven’t continued my closer research on that daddy, but it’s already one of the stories of my family I remember the best.

  • Building on my parents’ research, I had been faithfully climbing the tree of my GG grandmother who died young in 1890. When I was contacted by someone who had personally known the Emma I was researching, I was mortified. Turns out the only census my Emma was on while married, didn’t list a birthplace. My parents had borrowed someone else with the same father’s name.

    With only a marriage certificate to go on, I researched the couple who lived in the house my Emma lived in at marriage. Eventually I found the wife was Emma’s much older step-sister. Their daughter-in-law was the witness. And Emma had named one of her children after her step-mother.

    It was sad that I had lost all those many generations of research. But it was gratifying to know I had helped so many other people in the meantime. Even more gratifying to find the right family, all on my own; to learn new research skills and realise you do have to go back to old assumptions and question everything.

  • This is an excellent suggestion! One I need to remember more often.

    The baptismal sponsors and locations of the baptisms themselves for one of my Hockers confused me. They made no sense based on what I knew of his family. Researching the sponsors got me nowhere. I just couldn’t find any information on them.

    Then I got the bright idea to wonder about the man Jacob bought land from around the time of his marriage. Since the owner wasn’t a member of his family, I wondered if he was a member of the bride’s family. Long story short, it was her father. I not only found her maiden name and parentage, but also learned that the baptismal sponsors were her siblings AND the locations fit the pattern of the family’s movements during those years. I was able to track Jacob’s in-laws and their cousins in census, land and tax records in Pennsylvania.

    Now I’m hoping that tracking them will tell me where he went in Ohio and whether he died there or returned to Pennsylvania.

  • For a while now, I’ve been tracking my great-great grandfather, Jesse Morgan, who left my gg-grandmother in Ohio and took off for California in 1848/9. He may have married another woman along the way, but for sure he got shot and killed shortly after he got there! I’m trying to figure out if any of the people on his wagon train were connected to him back in Ohio, or were relatives. Since I have several letters from him and to him, I’m trying to track all those people. So far no joy–but it is an interesting trek.

  • Such an excellent article! I have actually, in the past, used this method to fill in some blanks too. I kept seeing certain surnames pop up and when I was done researching these neighbours, I not only discovered new documents for several people, but I even found a neighbour connection for a group of families that were neighbours and, after my 3rd gg moved out to settle in the west, each of the families followed him to the same region, spread out over a course of over 30 years. It made me wish I had access to those letters to his friends back home that would have encouraged them to uproot their families and join them! It was just so cool to discover and your article helps with so many tips I can apply to future projects! Thanks!

  • I used this technique to find one of my dad’s first cousins that had moved to Oregon. I found the family in one census,and in one 20 years later in a different town. I used the neighbors from the first census to search the intervening census and found his cousin. The surname spelling was way off, so there was no way anybody was going to find it in the index. I was able to send the information to the cousins grandchildren, as they had not found it.

  • I have been searching for my Ramsey ancestors in Philadelphia Pensylvenia. My great great grandfather John Norton Ramsey was born there before coming to Australia. I believe his father was a Joseph Ramsey who could have come from Ireland or northern England. I know what you mean about the name Ramsey. Lots of them….where to start.