Recently I wrote about trying to find those "lost boys" hiding in our family trees. Many of them were single and footloose, and turned up in the most unexpected places (including Leavenworth). If the surname is a common one, the search is even more difficult. If you'd like to revisit that article, it is called "Where are the lost boys?" and was posted on November. 5.
I promised to discuss the related problem: those elusive women. (I refer to women and not girls because females tended to stay with their parents or guardians into adulthood, or at least until they married.) We may know where they were for a certain period, but lose track later and do not have any idea what ultimately became of them. The fact that they usually marry, adopting their spouses' surnames, makes research even trickier.
My tactics include these steps: First, find the elusive female with her parents in all the relevant census records. This way you'll get a solid idea of her birthplace and approximate date of birth as well as the same information for her parents and siblings.
Some cautions: did the family move at some point, so some children were born in one place and the rest in another? Do the listed birthplaces and ages seem fairly consistent? Don't be put off by the occasional errant entry. Neither census takers nor the providers of family information were infallible. Consider the variety of nicknames and combinations of names and initials for each person. "Margaret J." in one census may become "Peggy Jane" in another.
Keep in mind the Heritage Quest census indexes (available online through the local library's website) do not list every person, just the head of household and any persons in the household with different surnames. (Even after 1850, when all names were recorded by the enumerator) If single Sarah MacDonald remained at home to care for her aging father, she will not be indexed separately. (Neither would her brothers) But if widowed Martha Cranford moved home to perform the same task, she should be listed in the index under her differing married name. Of course, if either of these is heading her own household rather than living under someone else's roof, her own name should be found.
The 1880 census, until recently unindexed by Heritage Quest, has an every-name index at the Mormons' familysearch.org site, with the bonus of allowing variant spellings. I used to look there, note the page number, then go to HQ, and, using its "browse" feature, find a copy of the microfilmed image. [Despite the detail in the LDS index, it is always a good idea to look at the original] However, more and more portions of this important census are now being indexed by HQ, and you can go directly there if you know the family surname. Twenty three states and territories, plus the District of Columbia, are indexed so far. [Check "What's New" to see a full list.]
The next step, after locating the woman in as many census records as possible, depends on a number of factors. Is she named in a parent's probate record? Sometimes a marriage can be determined by a will, wherein a father, Walter Connors, gives his "beloved daughter Susan Patrick my cow and milking stool". But it is important to remember that wills may bypass a married child who was perhaps given a substantial sum at the time of the nuptials. Better are letters of administration, because when a person dies without a will, and there are proceeds to be distributed, all the known legal heirs ought to be listed in court records.
Newspaper obituary notices often name the decedent's survivors, with their places of residence. Searching for obituaries can be a challenge, though. Assuming the missing woman's parents or siblings remained in the area where you last found her, look for local newspapers. Some have their own research departments and will provide information if you can supply approximate dates. (Let's hope you know when the parent or sibling died.) But in many cases the local or regional public library is the keeper of newspaper archives, and its staff is much more likely to be willing to search out the information – that is their job! Just be as specific – and brief -- as possible, and if writing a letter rather than emailing, enclose a SASE. By all means assure them you will be glad to compensate them for the costs incurred. (If they don't charge anything, I send a modest donation anyway.) Do be sure to express your appreciation for their efforts.
Library addresses are available in a number of places, but the fastest results probably come from simply Googling the city name, the plus sign, and the phrase "public library." Go to the resulting site and look for information on their services and how best to get in touch.
The USGenWeb is an all-volunteer site which provides access to locally-provided nformation on most counties in every state of the US. These include all sorts of lists, including local obits, cemetery records, marriage indexes (another good source), and more. The quality and quantity of data varies greatly, but you may strike gold. http://www.rootsweb.com/~usgw/
I use the California Death Index occasionally; it is an official state-wide index to deaths which have occurred in California since about 1941, and is updated pretty regularly, as far as I can tell. The Rootsweb site provides easy access to this. Once a person is located there, with date and place of death (and often the mother's maiden name), you can search for the obituary – and/or send for the death certificate if you choose.
You may have guessed I am a great proponent of free web sites. It irritates me to see such freely available information as the Social Security Death Index on a subscription site. Don't get lured into a fee-based search until you have investigated all the alternatives. Just because a list or index is offered for a price doesn't mean it is unavailable elsewhere free of charge.
And speaking of the SSDI, remember that while housewives, teachers and women in some other professions have not always been covered by Social Security, it is worth searching for them there, if they were of an age to have been enrolled since 1936. This index can be found at Familysearch and Rootsweb, as well as many other places.