Ancestry and FamilySearch: How Do I Search Effectively?

Both Ancestry & FamilySearch have billions of records to search. The problem is, when you search their entire website in one general search, the results you need might be on page twenty-six, so you never see them. Here are some suggestions on how to improve your results!

Search Strategies

“Less is More”- a principle for database searches:

  • If you enter too much information, the search engine won’t be able to find it all in one record so you get few or no results.

  • When you search, make sure you only include facts that would be on the record you hope to find.

Have a specific question in mind

  • Searching for a specific record, such as marriage record for an ancestor, will help narrow results.

Vary Your Search Parameters

  • Vary the additional facts used in your search, and vary when use choose “exact” or “match.”

  • Examples: birthdate, birthplace, family member, occupation.

  • Try searching with the middle name or just the initials.

  • For common names, use the “exact” or “match” option.

  • Vary which details you include, but make sure the detail you use would show up on the record. Example: the name of your ancestor’s spouse won’t be on his birth certificate.

Spelling Was Not Standardized for Most of History

  • Both Ancestry and FamilySearch include phonetic and similar spellings in their results, but these do not cover all the possible spellings, nicknames, abbreviations, and transcription errors.

  • Example: William, Will, Bill, Wm.

  • Example: Polly is a nickname for Mary, and Ann is a nickname for Nancy.

  • In the FamilySearch Wiki, enter “Nicknames” to find several lists, or use Google.

  • The Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames by Reaney & Wilson lists alternate surname spellings.

Search Without a Name

  • Try using only other information which uniquely identifies an individual like age or occupation.

  • Searching for just the parents’ names on FamilySearch is a great way to find siblings.

Search for Other Family Members Instead

  • If you aren’t finding a record, search for the same event for other family members.

  • o Example: If there are too many results for Tom Smith in a census search, try searching for his son, Thaddeus Smith.

  • Family member with unique names are especially helpful.

  • In Ancestry, click on the name of a family member who is indexed in that record and follow that family member’s “Suggested Records” too (found on the right-hand side.) Do this for several different records because you get different results.

Try Using Wild Cards

  • Both Ancestry and FamilySearch support the use of “Wild Cards.”

  • The following instructions are from Ancestry’s Support Center:

  • Wild cards are special symbols used in searches to represent unknown letters in a word. Ancestry uses the asterisk (*) and the question mark (?).

  • The * represents zero to five characters, while the ? represents one character.

  • When searching with wild cards, at least the first or last character must not be a wild card

  • All searches containing wild cards must contain at least three non-wild card letters.

  • For example, though searching “*ohnson” and “Johnso*” would work, “*ohnso*” would not; and while “*ill” would work, “*ll” would not.”

How are Wild Cards useful?

  • To replace a single unknown letter.

  • To find names that begin with the same letters; “Fran*” will produce results for both “Frank” and “Francine.”

  • To find first letter(s), as in “*aylor” and “*ompson.”

  • To find alternate spellings of the same name; searching for “Lac*” will produce results for “Lacy,” “Lacey,” “Laci,” and “Lacie.”

Census Search Tips:

Look for Clues!

  • When you find a person in every census available when he/she was alive, there are many clues like additional children or relatives living with them.

  • Try Ancestry first when searching for a census. Their search algorithms are more successful.

  • Narrow the search down to the specific census you are missing, i.e. search just in 1860. When all else fails browse the actual pages.

  • Remember birth dates can be off several years in the census for multiple reasons.

  • Even if Ancestry and FamilySearch have the same collection, such as the 1880 U.S. Census, it may have been indexed differently. Try searching both.

  • Gather all possible clues from each census record:

  • Look at the original record and notice every column. For example, the 1870 Census has a column indicating if they were eligible to vote, so if they were foreign born, then this column indirectly indicates whether they were naturalized.

  • Watch for indications of second marriages, such as the wife was significantly younger than her husband, the age of the wife at birth of oldest child, or gaps in ages of children.

  • When you have no birth year except the census, which age is most accurate? The census when he/she is under 10 years old. This is due to an obvious difference between a two-year-old and an eight-year-old.

  • When trying to interpret handwriting, look for the same letter somewhere else on the page.

  • Don’t forget special census schedules: mortality, slave, veterans, non-population schedules, etc.

  • Check both Ancestry and FamilySearch.

Search Single Collections to Narrow Results

Use Ancestry’s Catalog to Search Individual Collections:

  • Find under “Search” and “Card Catalog.”

  • Then enter in the [State] and the [record type] you need.

  • Then click on one of the results and search just in that collection.

On FamilySearch Search Individual Collections:

  • Find under “Search” and “Records”

  • Then under “Find A Collection,” enter the name of the [state] and [record type] if necessary.

  • Then click on one of the results and search just in that collection.

In the FamilySearch Catalog, Search Microfilms and Books That Have Been Digitized

  • Go to the FamilySearch Catalog and instead of searching by “Place,” use the “Keyword” search to enter what you want to find. Example: Anson County North Carolina Land.

  • On the left hand side, find the filter for “Availability.”

  • Click on “Online” and it will show the catalog list for only online films and books.

© 2017 Julie Stoddard

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