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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Use a No Name Search to Find Your Ancestor in Genealogy Records

Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.

When you have trouble finding your ancestors in online record collections, you need to switch gears and try something different. While time-consuming, a database search that excludes a surname may help you find your elusive kin.

Why Can't You Find Your Ancestor in Online Databases?

Regarding your ancestor hiding in online databases, I have discovered a few common reasons they aren't showing up.

  • Their given names or surname is misspelled on a document.

  • The handwriting is hard to read, and an indexer makes the wrong guess.

  • They are recorded with the wrong last name. Typically it's the head of a household's surname.

  • The document has faded, water damage, inkblots, or other flaws that make reading a name impossible.

  • The name was never recorded on the document in question.

  • Your ancestor was not recorded in the document you had hoped they would appear.

The first three reasons can be researched around with online search strategies. Wild card searches often find the missing relatives in the first two cases. Reason three, four, and five might require patience to utilize the following methods that might pay off.

Start With What You Do Know

Before you can do a search of any kind, you need to know what you're looking for. That requires you to have developed a research question by building your family tree. When you find a missing ancestor or an ancestor missing facts, you need to review what you know before discovering something new.

Even if you're researching an ancestor that you know little about, you still need to start with something. For instance, I knew the following details:

  • Elizabeth Weakly

  • b. 1818 in West Virginia

  • married John Sparks

  • married Nathaniel Pitney

  • children: Matilda, Robert, Amanda

Based on these facts and after reviewing my sources, I didn't know where Elizabeth lived in the 1900s. Therefore, I developed the following research question.

Research Question: Where was Elizabeth Weakly Sparks Pitney living in 1900?

Start In the Card Catalog

If you are trying to find an ancestor with limited information, search for a recordset first and then search for your ancestor within that collection.

If you know what records will answer your research question, focus on those collections. Several record collections could help me find Elizabeth in 1900, including:

  • City Directories

  • US Census Records

  • Cemetery Records (because she could be deceased)

  • Land Records

  • Probate Records

  • Newspapers

While many of these records are more challenging to search for such a specific year, we can start by searching the most probable first. For Elizabeth, that would be the digitized US Census records.

Thankfully, we can access the US Census records on Findmypast, MyHeritage, Ancestry, and FamilySearch.

Do a No Name Search on Ancestry

If you know that a relative lived in a specific place, you can do a No Name Search on Ancestry. FamilySearch does not work well when you leave both the first name and last name blank. As such, Ancestry works well, particularly if a document actually has no name recorded, as Crista Cowan explains in this video.

For my search parameters, I used:

  • born 1818

  • lived in Howard County, Missouri.

Ancestry offered 246 possibilities.

Unfortunately, I can't sort these results by names or filter by gender on this page. While I could use the Data Mining option to migrate all of these details into a spreadsheet, I opted for a No Surname Search first. I could always return to this option later.

To see these search strategies in action, watch this video.

Video: How to do No Surname and No Name Online Genealogy Searches

No Surname Search on FamilySearch

Another search strategy for difficult or missing relatives involves typing in a first name while living the surname filed blank. You also need to add additional biographical details such as birth date and place.

FamilySearch is a great platform for a No Surname Search when the results don't exceed 200,000 matches. You need to keep adding details to your search strategy to filter the results to keep the algorithm working correctly.

For my search parameters, I used:

  • Given Name: Elizabeth

  • born 1817-1818 in Virginia

FamilySearch returned 1,700 results.

Then I used the filters toward the middle of the page to reduce the results to females only. This reduced the possibilities to 1,300.

Once again, you can filter the results further. Interestingly, even though I set my search parameters to born between 1817-1818 when I applied the Birth Year in the 1810s filter, the results dropped to 350.

While 350 names seem to be too many to sift through, the next step involves quickly scanning for any details that jump out before diving deeper into the records.

While a surname table might be handy, it doesn't pick up the names of Elizabeth's siblings-in-law or children-in-law. But we'll keep those names in the back of our minds. With luck, you will be able to spot something that triggers your genealogy spider senses.

For me, the last name Blue stuck out, particularly when the female was listed as a grandmother in the home with a female named Matilda. A quick check of the children-in-law surnames and I recognized that John Blue married Matilda Weakly, my missing woman's daughter.

I would never have thought to look for Elizabeth in South Carolina, but it pays to do either a no surname search or searches all records for the children of your ancestors. Descendancy research offers a lot of benefits.

If at any time you would like the assistance of an experienced heir hunter or forensic genealogist, check out our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists. and tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.

Your Relatives Might Be There

Never assume your ancestor did not appear in a record collection because details limit your ability to find them through online searches with expected details.

Cast a wider search net. Use wildcard searches or tricks to get around OCR errors. And search without a username to capture your missing ancestor.

Before you go, you can also perform a no-given name search, similar to a no surname search. Be sure to record your positive and negative search results in your research plan.

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A reference for all blog posts and videos mentioned in the YouTube episode.

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