A horse thief is tried in court in 1900. The thief is sitting on a horse underneath the “Ice Beer” sign, with his hands behind his back.
National Archives and Records Administration

Dear Professor Gates:

Many write to you seeking to find out where their ancestors were in the 19th century and earlier. In my case, I know where my ancestor was in the 19th century but have lost track of him in the 20th century.

My great-grandfather was named Allen Mack (changed from “Arthur McDonald”). He was born in Franklin, Robertson County, Texas, in 1882. His father was James “Jim” McDonald, and his mother was Caroline (Young) McDonald. He turns up in the 1900 census as an 18-year-old servant of Wash Riley in Hearne, Robertson County, Texas. He married Riley’s granddaughter, Bessie (Benson) Mack, and had children with her. Allen Mack is in the 1910 and 1920 censuses living with his wife and children, but after that he disappears. Bessie shows up in the 1930 census as a “married” head of household, but Allen is not there. In 1940 Bessie shows as widowed, but I have not been able to find a death record, grave or any other information for Allen after this time. 

I do know that Allen's brother, Henry “Buck” McDonald, was into horse rustling back then and did prison time for it. It is rumored that Allen changed his name and moved from Franklin to Hearne because of an incident with a horse. That leaves me to wonder if foul play was involved in his disappearance or if he just changed his name again and moved. Please help me find out what happened to Allen Mack after 1920. —Myron L. Mack

Seeking Clues When You Are Unsure of the Name

To be honest, if Allen Mack did, in fact, change his name, it may be nearly impossible to trace him. We did find some leads worth exploring, however, including a death certificate for someone named Allen Mack. More about that in a bit.

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In the case of U.S. census records, keep in mind that census takers traveled from household to household and wrote down the information told to them by a member of the household. Names, ages and places of birth were often not accurately portrayed to the census takers. If Allen Mack did change his name, it would be easy for him to have deceived the census records in an attempt to remain hidden.

A good strategy would be to search through the 1930 and 1940 U.S. federal census records for any town you believe that Allen Mack may have lived in as a boarder, lodger or roomer and see if someone fits his general profile in terms of age, gender and circumstance.

In this case, it makes sense to search the 1930 census for the towns of Franklin and Hearne in Robertson, Texas. Because you have no records of Allen Mack after 1920 and he may have changed his name, you should examine these census records for any male living without a wife or family (such as a boarder or laborer living in another household) above the age of 40. Ancestry.com has all of the U.S. federal census records online (subscription required). FamilySearch has free access to census records through the 1940 enumeration. You might also consider that Allen Mack went back to the original name you had for him, Arthur McDonald.

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We did pull up a record that is worth a second look to see if this person could be Allen Mack in hiding. In the 1930 U.S. federal census of Franklin in Robertson, Texas, there is a 48-year-old man named Ben Edwards, listed as the brother-in-law of F.L. Richards and living in his household. Could Ben Edwards be your ancestor, having changed his name and attempting to live under the radar with a friend or confidant as a “son-in-law”?

Checking Historical Newspapers

To follow up on the “horse rustling” rumor (or any other trouble Allen Mack may have encountered), look through archived newspapers for information about him post-1920. It is first important to narrow your search to the newspapers that were available after 1920 in the Robertson County, Texas, area. The newspaper website GenealogyBank has subscription-based access to many online Texas newspapers and shows the date ranges when the newspapers were distributed. Because Robertson County is located near such large Texas cities as Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston, it seems best to concentrate on those cities and their historical newspapers from the early to mid-20th century.

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The Library of Congress has also digitized many of the Texas newspapers for free under its Chronicling America project, and the Portal to Texas History has the Texas Digital Newspaper Program collection, which could be very beneficial in finding out any potential information on the whereabouts of Allen Mack.

Sometimes it can be extremely helpful to enlist the help of a local historical society. Near Robertson County are five local Texas historical societies: the Chappell Hill Historical Society, the Bremond Historical Society, the Bellville Historical Society, the Bastrop County Historical Society and the W.H. Passon Historical Society, in Austin.

Local historical societies often have wonderfully informative archives and copies of old newspapers from the area. Similarly, local libraries also often have great resources. The Robertson County Carnegie Library may have old newspapers on microfilm that are not available anywhere else and could have information about what happened to Allen Mack after 1920.

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Tracing Other Kin for Hints of What Happened

Another way to find out information about Allen Mack is to research his children to see whether there are any clues to what happened to him. The FamilySearch website holds many records, including Texas birth, death and marriage records. Allen Mack may have a death certificate registered somewhere in Texas, or his children might have death certificates within the Texas Deaths, 1890-1976 database.

We did pull up records for three people who list Allen Mack and Bessie Benson as parents:

* The death certificate of Mildred Wilson (you must register for free to view it), a daughter who died May 31, 1956, in Hearne. Her father was Allen Mack, born in Franklin, Texas, and her mother was Bessie Benson, born in Franklin. Sometimes death certificates will have additional clues, such as when deceased parents passed away, but this certificate does not provide any additional clues to Allen Mack’s whereabouts after 1920. The death certificate states that Mildred’s brother, Lewell Mack, signed as the informant.

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* The death certificate of Jimmie Mae Mack (likewise, you must register for free to view it), the wife of Josh Hearne and daughter of Allen Mack and Bessie Benson, who died Feb. 11, 1935, in Hearne. Lewell Mack also signed as the informant on Jimmie Mae Mack’s death certificate.

* The death certificate of Marietta Miles (registration also required), a daughter who died Sept. 18, 1970, in Hearne. Her daughter, Callie Jewel (Miles) Owens, signed as the informant.

Sometimes death certificates have valuable clues written on them. For example, if Allen Mack had signed any of his children’s death certificates, we would have known for certain that he was still alive during those years and living close enough to Hearne to be able to sign the death certificates. However, that was not the case in any of the records we pulled up.

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Could This Be Your Allen Mack?

Within the Texas Deaths, 1890-1976 database on FamilySearch, we found a death certificate for Allen Mack, who had prostate cancer and died from a cerebral hemorrhage in Waco, McLennan, Texas, on Oct. 16, 1953.

It is difficult to say whether or not this is your ancestor, because the date of birth is unknown (his age was listed as about 73, which places his birth around 1880, which could fit with your ancestor), both of his parents are unknown and his birthplace is stated only as “Texas.” He is listed as married, and the informant’s signature is “Mattie Mack.” (Does that ring a bell?) He spent four days in Providence Hospital in Waco, and Allen Mack’s “usual residence” was listed as 272 N. Lutter Lane in Gatesville, Coryell, Texas.

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These are all important clues to follow up on—perhaps Allen Mack left Robertson County after 1920 (maybe because of his brother’s run-in with the law, or because of his own incident with a horse) and moved 70 miles north to Waco. Or perhaps Waco was simply the best place for him to get treatment for cancer.

Sometimes local historical texts can help verify an ancestor’s movements. Richard Denny Parker wrote Historical Recollections of Robertson County, Texas in 1955, and this book may contain information about Allen Mack, his brother or other family members. If Allen Mack did indeed move to Waco, another source to check is Historic McLennan County, by Sharon Bracken. These texts, among many other local historical texts regarding Robertson and McLennan County, Texas, are available in university libraries and public libraries.

Please let us know if you find out what happened to your forebear Allen Mack.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Andrew Krea, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.