A Genealogue Exclusive [What's That?]Elsie Wentzel of Casper, Wyoming, has taken on a mammoth task. She is compiling a database of everyone whose surname is "Unknown."
"I started finding Unknowns in my own family when I first started genealogy," says Wentzel, a retired dog groomer. "Then I found more and more. It seemed that every family line ended in an Unknown."
A search of genealogy databases on the Internet proves that Wentzel's family is not unique. The WorldConnect project at RootsWeb.com includes more than 4 million individuals with the surname "Unknown." Only 3 million people named "Smith" have been submitted.
"They were even on the Mayflower," Wentzel boasts. "No marriage record has been found, but the last name of William Brewster's wife is usually given as 'Unknown.'"
Wentzel understands the challenges ahead. "I've found them in the indexes of every census, but their last names are usually hard to read on microfilm. And it's all but impossible to link one Unknown family group to another. They appear to have come from every country on earth. As far as I can tell, no one has figured out the origins of all the Unknowns."
She has detected one trend that leaves her especially puzzled. "It's strange how often it turns up as a woman's maiden name."
Wentzel is planning a family reunion of sorts at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C., next August. She invites anyone with Unknown ancestry to attend. An excursion to the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington, Virginia, is scheduled, and a genetic technician will be in attendance to gather samples of Unknown DNA.
"With any luck," she says, "I'll finally figure out what it means to be an Unknown."