Searching online databases and indexes is a learned art. Each website has its own quirks so what works for Ancestry.com doesn’t necessarily work for FamilySearch. Here are some general principles to get you started.
Always search with every bit of info you have to make the search as tight as possible. If that doesn’t work then slowly expand your search parameters outward. This will decrease the number of unrelated hits you will get. You can first expand outward by making the name not as exact. If that doesn’t work then you are play with the dates and play with the location. It takes time to do this but you will still find what you are looking for quicker than if you put in John Doe, New Jersey as your starting point.
Ancestry.com and FamilySearch have the ability to do fuzzy name searches. They use things like the Soundex, phonetic equivalent, initials etc. but don’t rely on just that. One thing you need to look out for is when the first letter of the name has been indexed incorrectly because the fuzzy search probably won’t pick it up. For example, if I am looking for Thomas Simmons and the name was indexed as Thomas Timmons the Soundex and phonetics aren’t going to find my person. You still have to play with the name spellings. While I am on that, just because a name is indexed a certain way doesn’t mean that is how it is spelled on the actual document. This is but one of the many reasons you need to get the original document and not rely on an index. Indexers make errors.
Many people went by their nicknames their entire life and had no problem using them on official documents. Mary Elizabeth Doe might be Polly (a common nickname for Mary, don’t ask me why), Eliza or Lizzie. Many people went by their middle name so if you only know your ancestor as John Doe, You might not realize that Jim Doe (James) is the same person, John James Doe.
If you are not getting any hits and your ancestor has a nice unusual first name search by that. If the last name is really messed up you might do better with a first name. There are a limited number of Marmadukes in South Carolina in 1850.
Sometimes you have no other choice but to search by location only. I will tell you that this is the one time that microfilm has a distinct advantage over digital images. If I need to search an entire county for someone I can whizz through a roll of microfilm a lot faster than loading digital images one at a time, especially if the connection is slow.
Another trick for the census records specifically is to search for any known neighbors. Your person of interest’s name could be so badly mangled in the index that you won’t be able to find them under their own name but their next door neighbor has a nice easy name that the indexer didn’t mess up.
Newspaper searches have their own quirks. If you are looking for an obituary and you have no idea where or when the person died, you can sometimes find them by using a name and a place of birth. For example, If I had no idea that Thomas Simmons died in Tavenier, Florida, I could run a search with Thomas Simmons and Purvis (Mississippi). Many times they put where the person was born. This will narrow my results down to pretty much 1. You can also search by known descendants. This works well for a woman who remarried and you didn’t know it.
The more flexible and creative you are with your online searches the more success you will have.
Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis