Wednesday, March 13, 2013

More Effective Searches

Public Service Announcement:  I have updated my Book List to include my latest purchase.

Johnson, Richard S. and Debra Johnson Knox. How to Locate Anyone Who Is or Has Been in the Military. Eighth Edition. Spartanburg, South Carolina: MIE Publishing, 1999.

I needed this book for a client project I am working on and I have to say that this is a wonderful resource! 

There is a real art to doing searches on, FamilySearch, GenealogyBank and the like.  Each website has its own quirks.  I want to give you some general principles.

Always start with the most specific information you have and then slowly make it more general
Making you search as tight as you can will limit the number of hits you get.  If you don’t get a good match the first time you can then expand your parameters a bit.  You might end up doing several searches but you have a better chance of snagging your person of interest with the fewest irrelevant matches to wade through.

Remember that you are working with indexes and indexers make mistakes with spelling
You know how your ancestor’s name was spelled so when you look at a document you can see the name in the messy handwriting better than someone who doesn’t know your family.  Try different spellings.  If the website allows for fuzzy name searches (Soundex, phonetic etc.) use it. 

If you can’t get a hit using the surname, try using the first name
I can’t tell you how many times I have used this strategy.  You can also try middle names, nicknames and initials.  Surnames seem to get bungled more than first names. 

Use different indexes
Back in the olden days when we were still looking at census records on microfilm, we used census index books to help us.  If you didn’t’ find the name in one book you would find one from another publisher and check again.  If you can’t find your ancestor on, try the index on FamilySearch or Heritage Quest (not all years indexed).   You need to do this too if you have an unclear image.  Even though all of repositories digitize the same microfilm, they have different enhancement capabilities.  If you have found your family and you just need to check another image, then you can add InternetArchive to the above list.  If it happens to be the 1940 you are looking at you can also add NARA.

Try searching for a known neighbor
If you can’t find your person of interest, look and see who his neighbors were in the census before and the census after.  Try searching for these people in the census year where you can’t find your ancestor.  They may still be living near each other.

Sometimes you just have to do it the hard way
If you are trying to find your ancestor in a particular census and they are just not showing up in the index, you might have to actually look at the census page by page.  That is how I found my grandfather in the 1920.  It took forever but there he was.  He wasn’t in the index (not sure why). Of course this will only work if you can narrow it down to at least the county level.  If you are looking in a big city you need to try and get the location narrowed further that that.  I will tell you that this is the one time that looking at microfilm is better than looking at digital images.  You can go through a county microfilm roll a lot faster than waiting for individual images to load on your computer.

When you are working with something like GenealogyBank you have the advantage of adding in keywords
If I am looking for an obituary and I don’t have enough information to do a tight search, I will use just the surname and then add keywords like “funeral” or “died” or maybe the first names of some of the known survivors. I might have to try several combinations. I found an obit by putting the name of the town where my person of interest was born. I had no idea where he died or when he died but within the obit it actually said, “native of Purvis, Mississippi.” When I put the word Purvis in I got a hit. I have found that keywords don’t work as well with because not every word is indexed.

The more searches you do, the better you will get
When I worked at the McDuffie Mirror I was given access to the Augusta Chronicle Archives (owned by the same parent company).  The search engine was nothing like GenealogyBank or NewspaperArchives.  It took me forever to get the hang of it but once I did it was a goldmine.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Michelle, this is a really useful article, both for the novice and the pro who might have gotten stuck in a rut. I particularly like the reminder that indexers are humans. WE know what Grandpa's name should be, but they don't have a clue and are trying to puzzle out that indecipherable handwriting. I like to think of all the ways a name could be misspelled or misheard and then search for those when all else fails.

  2. When I index/arbitrate in areas of the country where I don't normally do research I get a little stumped with unfamiliar surnames. Since surnames can be very regional it might be a name that I just wouldn't recognize in the bad handwriting unless I was familiar with that area and the people that lived there. That is why FamilySearch's indexing is better than (in my opinion). You have two indexers and then an arbitrator, if needed.

  3. Thanks for the good practical advice. Even tho I complain about some of the transcriptions found on line, I know first hand how difficult it is to get the name right. Is it Newton or Newlon? Roy or Ray? Sometimes impossible to know.

  4. When I am arbitrating and I have indexer A that has Ray vs. indexer B that has Roy I spend forever looking at every a and o on several pages before I hit the accept button :)

  5. I've used several of your suggestions in the past. First name searches on Heritage Quest can be really helpful, especially if you know the country. And first name searches for a married ancestor to find her parents can work well. And I just had the experience of going page by page through a census. You're right about using microfilm! (I wish it had been readily available.) Thanks for a helpful post.

  6. Thank you for your kind comments, Nancy :)


  7. 'Use different indexes' is excellent advice. With census records, the indexes and transcriptions by FindMyPast are far more accurate than those on Ancestry. There are some links on

  8. I haven't used Find My Past before. It is good to know that they have good indexes. I get a little frustrated sometimes with

  9. For the past month I've been looking for a family in the 1940 census. Using one of your tips (using the first name) I finally found them. Thanks!