Missing Persons Listings in Old Newspapers: Use Them to Find Your Ancestors

Have you ever considered using Missing Persons notices in old newspapers to search for your missing ancestors? Their contemporary relatives did. When people moved and lost touch in the days before telephones and reliable mail, this is what they turned to in order to find their loved ones. Here’s how you can do the same for your ancestors.

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In the old days, before telecommunications, it was challenging for people to keep in touch when someone moved far away. In fact, when people immigrated to other countries, like to the United States, they almost always did so with the knowledge that they may never see or even hear from their loved ones in the “old country” again. Of course, most of them always hoped to stay in touch via letters (there was always the odd person who left the home country intending to disappear, but this was the exception rather than the rule). However, the practicalities of moving far away and making a new life in a new country often meant those letters never got written, or received (especially if the immigrant moved around a lot once he or she arrived in the new country).

Sometimes, decades went by without loved ones hearing from each other. Former First Lady Abigail Adams famously went more than a year without hearing from her husband John when he was sent to England as the first diplomat from the new United States after the Revolution. Since John took their eldest son John Quincy with him, this absence of communication must have been particularly distressing for her. Even when a letter finally arrived, it was still five years before she and John were reunited in person, when Abigail went with her daughter to be with John in England, leaving behind their two youngest sons, who didn’t see their father for almost a decade, when he and Abigail finally returned to the states.

Abigail wasn’t alone in this plight. There are countless examples in just regular genealogical research of people who had relatives who went missing in the time before everyone had a phone in their pocket. One will I read a few years ago while doing some of my own research was written by a widowed woman. In the will, she left monetary gifts to each of her children, and she named them all (which is wonderful information for a genealogist). However, one of her children, a son named William, had moved “out west” about a decade prior, and, according to her will, she had not heard from him since. Not knowing whether William was alive or not, the woman left him the same amount of money in her will as the rest of her children, but with the instructions that it be divided among the children whose whereabouts were known if William did not show up or send word to claim it in a certain number of years after the woman was gone.

Of course, not everyone with a missing family member just accepted that they were un-findable. The newspapers of the 18th and 19th centuries are treasure troves of “missing persons” notices, and they can help you fill in some important gaps on your family tree. They may even be able to assist you in finding a long-missing, or even brick wall ancestor.

Missing persons notices were commonly printed in newspapers by the family an immigrant left behind. Usually, those notices were printed because the family loved and missed that person and wanted to find out what happened to them. Other times, they were for the purposes of finding someone to claim an inheritance. Notices of a missing person having something “good to hear” upon contacting the person who printed the notice are usually indicative of a waiting inheritance.

Most of the time, these notices were printed in the town or state where they relatives back home last knew their loved one was located or was going. If they didn’t even have that much information, they would print the notice in a national publication, or in several different publications across the United States. The hope was always that their loved one would see it and respond. Failing that, the next hope was that someone who knew their loved one, either currently or who knew where they went after they left the area of the publication, would see it and get word to their loved one or respond to them personally with news of the one they were trying to reach.

If you have been having a hard time tracking down information on an ancestor, looking in the Missing Persons section of old newspapers can be a great way to find them. The people who printed these notices were quite meticulous in their descriptions because they wanted to be sure there was no question as to who their loved one was and what they looked like. You will likely find such information on individuals in Missing Persons notices as:

  • Country of birth
  • Age
  • Names of relatives in the old country
  • Names of relatives in the United States (if any)
  • Physical description
  • Date of immigration or arrival in the United States
  • Name of ship they took when they immigrated
  • Any military service here or back home
  • Any inheritance information

Not only does this kind of information let you know a lot about who your ancestor was and the kind of life they led, but it also gives you valuable clues as to further avenues of research into them and their family before they came to America. Finding an ancestor in a Missing person advertisement can open up a whole new family line for you to explore, help you get through a brick wall, and/or supply those important personal details about an individual that most historical records simply do not convey. They let you flesh out your ancestor, reconstituting him or her back into the real human being they once were, allowing you to get to know them better. This is an important goal of most genealogists, and one that is often challenging to accomplish without personal family stories in existence, or letters or diaries that were saved over the generations.

Remember, you don’t even have to look in a newspaper in a place where you thought your ancestor may have lived. Look at nationwide publications, too, or ones from surrounding towns or states. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you can discover.