Tracing Your Roots: Help! My Great-Granddad’s Trail Ran Cold

George Washington Bridges
George Washington Bridges
Photo: Courtesy of Elle J. (family photo)

Sometimes, following the paper trail left by a close relative of the person you’re tracing will yield better results.


Dear Professor Gates:

I have been looking for the father of my great-grandfather George Washington Bridges, born in 1875 in Georgia. I have located records placing him in Butts County, Ga. One of the census records even lists his mother residing with him, and her name is Ida Mae (Bell) Roby. I was on a roll until I ended up hitting a dead end! I am not able to find George Bridges in any records before 1900, not even placing him with his mother and father. I’ve heard from my grandfather that George’s father was a white man by the name of Frank Bridges. No paper trail has tied Frank to George or even George to Ida. Please help! —Elle J.

Sometimes, when the trail goes cold for an ancestor, it helps to trace close relatives or associates whose documentation extends back further. We used this method to find a boy who may have been your ancestor George Washington Bridges.

As you noted, in 1920, George Bridges was residing in Dublin, Butts, Ga., with Ida Roby; his wife, Beulah; and five children. We found few earlier records for George, but far more for Ida Roby, so we decided to follow her back in time (from the racially repressive Jim Crow era to the earlier post-Civil War Reconstruction period) to see where it would lead.

Butts County Hadn’t Always Been Home 

In 1910, Ida Roby was residing in the household of her brother, Lucious Bell, in Dublin, Butts, Ga. Lucious Bell had his wife, Minnie, and two adopted children, Minnie L. Gordon and Cloe T. Gordon, also residing in the household, along with a hired man named Profid Ward. Examining the original record, we saw that Ida Roby was a widow who had been married for 11 years. She also had borne four children, though the record does not state how many of them were still living. Since she was living with a brother, we decided to investigate him further, as well, to learn more about the family.


Ten years earlier, Ida Roby was residing in Militia Districts 552, 609, Iron Springs, Dublin, Butts, Ga., with her husband, James, and two children named Walter Roby (age 19) and Carrie Roby (age 18). There are a few things you will want to note when examining the original record. James and Ida Roby were residing directly next to the household of Gip Roby (age 26), who could be another son of the couple. They are also recorded on the same page as Ida’s brother, Lucious Bell, who was residing directly next to another James Bell. It is likely that this James Bell is related to the family.

Another recurring surname: In both 1900 and 1910, the Roby and Bell families were residing close to a Phillip Gordon (with the same surname as Lucious’ adopted children), who is recorded in 1900 as the brother-in-law of Lucious Bell. Many of the names of Ida’s neighbors in 1900 are repeats of those we have seen as neighbors to her in 1910 and even some in 1920, such as Alsea H. Pope, who lived close to Ida from 1900 to 1920. This suggests that Ida either did not move during this time frame or that she did but had a close association with Alsea Pope, since they resided near each other for so long. Tracking Alsea Pope could be helpful in further research.


There is a marriage record for Ida Bell and James Roby recorded at Jasper County, Ga., on Dec. 27, 1888. This confirms that Ida’s maiden name was Bell and suggests that Ida was in Jasper County prior to her residing in Butts County. Jasper County neighbors Butts County, so she did not move far, but this gives you another county to search for records of the family. Based on records for George Bridges, this marriage took place 10 years after George was born, so if Ida (Bell) Roby was his mother, he could have had a different father than James Roby.

Getting Around a Common Gap in Census Records

To locate more information on George Bridges, you could start by ordering a copy of his death certificate. The Georgia Death Index records that he died at Butts County, Ga., on Aug. 14, 1959, and that it is certificate No. 21589. You could contact the county or state about obtaining a copy of the original, which may contain information about his birth and his parents.


Meanwhile, we found that in 1910, George Bridges was residing with his first wife, Clifford, at Cabaniss, Monroe, Ga. This is yet another neighboring county to Butts County, and George was residing next to Walter Roby, who we know from the 1900 U.S. census was Ida Roby’s son, signaling that we located the right people. A marriage record for George Bridges and Clifford Towns places them in Butts County on Nov. 23, 1902.

One of the problems you may be having in locating him earlier than 1900 may be due to the lack of surviving federal census records from 1890 and the fact that he was born close to 1880. This 20-year gap in documentation can be hard to close for individuals who were young during this period and therefore typically do not appear in records.


However, we do have the names of several relatives and associates as well as counties where they resided, so we searched for them in the 1880 census and kept an eye on neighboring households for any evidence of George. We suggest that you take this approach as well, keeping in mind that his surname may be different from what it was in later records, especially if he was a child residing with an aunt, uncle or other relative and was recorded under their surname.

Is This George Bridges?

We located a “Lucius” Bell residing at Denegal, Jasper, Ga., in 1880 in the household of his father, Edward Bell. We figured if Lucious Bell was Ida’s brother, as other records suggest, it means that her parents were Edward and Caroline Bell. Indeed, she was residing with them in 1870 at Langston and Heads District 364, Jasper, Ga. Since we know that Ida’s family was residing in Jasper County between 1870 and 1880, we thought that George might have been born there.


Moving back to Lucious Bell’s record in 1880, we looked at the people living nearby and noted a boy named George A. Bell recorded just two pages after on the census. He is older than we would expect George Bridges to be by about 10 years, but keep in mind that ages in census records can sometime vary that much, particularly if people were not sure exactly when they were born. George A. Bell was 13 years old in 1880, living in the household of Hawk Bell, and was working as a laborer. His race was recorded as “mulatto,” as is the race of everyone else in his household, which may square with the mixed-race heritage of your family story.

Furthermore, if you search the pages in between the families of George A. Bell and Lucious Bell, you will note a number of families with the surname Bridges (as well as a few Gordons); for example, a Tom and Hannah Bridges were recorded very near George A. Bell. Many of the Bell and Bridges family members recorded in these pages were recorded as “mulatto” or “black,” and there was one household of T.J. and Minnie Bridges, who initially were recorded as “mulatto,” which was corrected to say “white.” This may indeed be your ancestor George, although we encourage you to do more research to confirm this.


While we did not locate a Frank Bridges who would be the right age to be the father of George Bridges, we suggest that you focus on locating as much information as you can about these individuals we found in the 1880 census and try to map out the family networks to see if you can determine where George W. Bridges may fit in. In addition to searching online, you may also benefit from contacting the county clerks in both Butts and Jasper counties to see what records may be available.

Good luck!

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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., the genealogist of the Newbury Street Press at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family-history research. Its website,, contains more than 1 billion 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 about researching African-American roots.