click to view original photo

Researching the Neighbors: Expanding Your Research

As we gather more and more information on our relatives we will hit the inevitable brick wall. One way to get through that wall is to start looking at collateral relatives and neighbors/friends of our ancestors.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1281 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
Short URL:

I had an interesting thing happen to me on Halloween night. I took my two boys to trick or treat at our neighbor's house. My neighbor gave the kids some candy and talked about their costumes, asked them about their plans for the night, the usual Halloween stuff. Then he said to me that he wanted to take a picture of the kids in their costumes because he had pictures of them in front of his house for the last three Halloween nights. As he took the annual picture of my kids, I laughed to myself and realized that if this neighbor has pictures of my kids then who might have pictures of my ancestors that I don't even know about!

Who Is My Neighbor?

As we gather more and more information on our relatives we will hit the inevitable brick wall. One way to get through that wall is to start looking at collateral relatives and the neighbors and friends of our ancestors. But how do we identify these people? One way is to go back and reanalyze the materials we have already collected on our ancestors. These documents that we have already scrutinized for our ancestor's information can also tell us about the people who were close to and knew our ancestral families.

Census Records

The first stop on our journey is to go back over the census records we have collected on our ancestors. Take a look at who lived near them. Write those names down and see if they are consistent through the years. Do they always live near your family or do they move? Who replaces them as new neighbors? These people knew your ancestor and may have played a role in their day-to-day life.

This task may be made difficult in pre-1850 census years. Occasionally, in these earlier censuses I have found "helpful" census takers who alphabetized the lists, thus making it impossible to determine where your ancestor's family lived in relation to anyone else.

In addition to looking at the federal census, look to see if any state censuses exist for your locality. You can consult the Family History Library,, and search your state of interest to determine if the library has any state censuses that have been microfilmed. Also, consult Ann S. Lainhart's book, State Census Records, (Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000). This book lists each state and what, if any, state census records exist. Author and researcher, William Dollarhide, recently wrote a series of articles published in Heritage Creations, Genealogy Bulletin providing information on state censuses and census substitutes. You may be able to still backorder this series through Heritage Creations,

Land Records

Land records not only tell us where our ancestor lived and from whom and to whom they bought and sold land, but can also tell us who lived near them. Record the bearings for your ancestor's land and then go and see whose land neighbors theirs. If you can find a plat map, it will not only show the land your ancestor owned but also will show you who owned the land around them. It will help you get a sense of what the community was like.

City Directories

City directories, when available for your location, can provide you with information including the address of your ancestor and their occupation. Use a city directory to check out the neighbors and their occupations. You can access city directories for some locations through the Family History Library catalogue. Also, look through local library collections fo the city directory you need.


Once you know the names of your ancestor's neighbors, start doing some research on them. Look at local sources in your ancestor's locality that might advance your search. For example, maybe your ancestor didn't leave a journal or family Bible but maybe the neighbor did. Journals often record everyday life events, including happenings with the neighbors. Check with the local historical, genealogical society and museum for more information on the neighbor's family and any holdings they may have on that family. Access PERSI through Heritage Quest, available at your local library or through a subscription with Godfrey Memorial Library, PERSI, an acronym for the Periodical Source Index, is an index of over 1.6 million genealogy and local history articles. Search through PERSI for articles on the town you are researching, your ancestor's last name and the name of their neighbors. Once you find articles you are interested in you can request an interlibrary loan from your local library or order a copy of the article from the Allen County Public Library.

The National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections, NUCMC, available through, is a catalogue program operated by the Library of Congress. This catalogue lists manuscript collections found throughout the United States. Search for your ancestor's name and the name of collateral relatives and neighbors. If a journal or other manuscript on those families is available, most likely it will be listed in NUCMC. Similarly, always look at the card catalogue of the university nearest your ancestral home. They often have collections of local history that may include the writings and papers of local people. Most, if not all colleges and universities have their library collections online, so searching could not be easier. I have had the experience of finding a collection online that is housed at a far away university but not being sure if the collection included the surnames I am researching. I have found that a quick email to the reference librarian with the surname I am interested in will usually get me a reply about whether the collection will be useful for my purposes.

I have often felt that other people probably have my ancestor's stuff in the form of pictures or information but they don't know me and I don't know that they have it. So how do you get in touch with these folks? One way is to place an ad in the local newspaper about your research and requesting information. I have also made sure that local historical and genealogical societies in my ancestor's town know whom I am researching and how others can get a hold of me. I have one historical society that has sent me information on my family as they come across it and have given me e-mail address to other researchers, which has benefited my research immensely. Because of a historical society, I connected with the descendents of my 4th-great-grandmother's daughter from her second marriage. Although we are descendents from the first marriage, these newly discovered descendents provided us with history and pictures that we had not known about nor would have thought to ask for.

Check out online photo archives for pictures of your ancestors that you may not even have known existed. For example, the USGenweb,, county sites sometimes have old pictures of local people and events. Large group photos could include your family members. Photo archives like Dead Fred,, allow you to search for photos of people with the surname you are researching. You can then choose to order a photo or download it. For other online photo archives, check out the lost and found list under the section entitled, Photographs and Memories on Cyndi's List ( Ebay is also a good place to search periodically for ancestor's names and places they lived. It's a source for post cards, photographs, and other ephemera from your ancestor's location.

Remember, as you research your family and feel the inevitable frustration that comes from a seemingly lack of new information, that your ancestor lived a live full of friends, extended family and community. While you may not have inherited the family pictures, there is someone out there who has the picture and information that you wish for.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles