Finding living relatives is one of the main reasons why many people start researching their family history. But this can be a challenge, because more recent census and vital statistics information is protected for privacy reasons. Additionally, message boards like Rootsweb discourage the public posting of information that could identify people who are still living.

And sometimes, when people choose to research only their direct ancestors, they limit the possibility of connecting with living cousins who are descended from their ancestor’s brothers and sisters – so it is useful to track the whole family, and not just your direct ancestor..This has implications for who you add to your family tree.

I found it challenging to find the descendants of my great-uncle Robert, the one who moved from Ireland to Lancashire about 1902. First I had to find marriage records for the daughters (I have more than a few certificates I ordered from the GRO that are for other people); then track any children they had; and then find their death records to see who the informant was. Then I had to track the informant. My search was ultimately successful; I found one of Robert’s grandchlidren by searching online once I had confirmed the relevant marriages and birth records to confirm I had the right person. I found another one through online records once I had confirmed the linkage back to Robert.

Occasionally, people find one another as they are searching for relatives through message boards like Rootsweb, but this is comparatively rare. If you have a paid membership to a site such as Ancestry or Find My Past, you may find family trees that include your ancestors, and you can send a message to the person who owns the tree and connect that way. This does, however, cost money – which you may decide to spend after you have been bitten by the genealogy bug :).

There is, however, a simpler, more direct and free method, that uses various census records to match cousins – and the more people who enter their relatives, the faster such matches will occur.

Created by Peter Calver, the  Lost Cousins site allows you to enter the names of ancestors you have found on various census records, and matches your entries with others who have entered the same ancestor. When it finds a match, you are notified, and then you can connect via the site (normally, only paying members can connect, but Lost Cousins periodically has free weekends that will allow you to connect even if you are not a paying member.)

Lost Cousins began with the 1881 England and Wales census, and has since expanded to include other census records, including the 1841 and 1911 England and Wales censuses, the 1881 Scotland census, the 1880 and 1940 US censuses, the 1881 Canadian census, and the 1911 Irish census.

The value of using census records is that if you have entered an ancestor from the census, and someone else has entered the same ancestor, you are likely related – if not cousins by blood, at least related by marriage. I have found several people through Lost Cousins, and do wish that many more people would enter their relatives from the census records so that the number of matches will increase still further.

Peter publishes the Lost Cousins Newsletter regularly, and it offers stories, hints, puzzles, and updates on genealogy sites and government actions related to family history research. It is free – you can subscribe through the Lost Cousins site.

A great value of Lost Cousins is that it lets you search for cousins from all of your lines at the same time, in a range of countries. He advises: “Remember that your cousins are descended from your collateral lines – that’s what makes them cousins – so the key relatives to enter are the members of your direct ancestors’ extended families.”

Sometimes such connections bring surprises – you may know something the other doesn’t, and vice versa. You may provide an answer to a puzzle that they have been trying to solve for a long time.

My grandfather, who was Scottish, was married and widowed in Scotland before he married my grandmother in Ireland. After I found the marriage certificate on Scotlands People, I was able to track the family of his young bride (who tragically, died in the 1918 flu epidemic after only a few months of marriage). Then, through a tree on Ancestry, I found a descendant of that bride’s family. When we exchanged information, I discovered that his family had believed the young woman was pregnant when she died. I shared the death certification information with him, which showed that she wasn’t. In turn, he shared information about her family, so both of us benefitted from the connection.

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