5 Quick Tips For Finding Records Hiding in Online Collections

Are you struggling to find records on FamilySearch, MyHeritage, FindMyPast or Ancestry for your ancestor?

Here are a few things you can do to attempt to force your ancestors to bubble up to the surface while using online search forms.

  1. Expand or contract date ranges

  2. Sometimes you need to add +5 or +10 to either end of the years your ancestors were born, married, or died.

  3. Not all records record exact birth, marriage, or death information so expanding your range can help you find your elusive records.

  4. Larger year ranges can be caused by transposition errors where 1835 became 1853) or transcription errors (1870 rather than 1890).

  5. Expand or contract locations

  6. Records are kept in various jurisdictions and as such you will miss records if you use too narrow or broad a location.

  7. If your ancestor lived in Franklin Township, Columbus, Franklin County, Ohio, United States, you can eliminate the township and city and discover more details about your ancestor. Sometimes you have to eliminate all the way to the country level.

  8. Ancestry.com has a cool feature to search nearby counties and/or states/provinces. Use that feature as well with your searches. Your ancestor could actually be ‘one county over’ or in the same county with a different name.

  9. Search by surname only

  10. Searching by surname only can help you pick up first names that were abbreviations, used initials, or were just plain wrong.

  11. This helped me find Winfield Underwood who was living in Grayson County, Texas and was only recorded with his initials in the 1880 census record.

  12. Search by a first name only

  13. Searching by a first name may produce numerous results, but this can be very useful when a surname was written ‘incorrectly’ or when women have a name change (either intentionally or through record creator error).

  14. When searching for my great-grandmother Elizabeth Weekly by only her surname, I discovered why I couldn’t find her with the last name Weekly. The enumerator recorded her with her son-in-law’s surname!

  15. This also worked when I was searching for Henry Geiszler who was recorded with her step-father’s name in the 1870 US Census

  16. se wildcards (*) and (?).

  17. Use the (*) to replace multiple letters in the beginning, middle or end of a name. With Brown* you can pick up the names Brown, Browns, Browne, and Browning, among others.

  18. Use the (?) to replace a single letter. This was helpful when I researching Edward Rang and he appeared in the census as Edward Rung. I found him by using the surname R?ng.

  19. Here’s a bonus tip: Search for a relative

  20. Sometimes you need to search for a child, in-law, or siblings in order to find your relative.

  21. In my recent case, I attempted to search for Lewis Brown in Columbus, Ohio records. I couldn’t find him until I searched for his mother, Emma Brown. When I finally discovered the record for Emma, I noticed that there were a few enumeration and indexing errors that placed Lewis in a different household with a strange variation of his last name that the wild cards couldn’t pick up.

There you have it, 5 Quick Tips for Researching Your Ancestor using online search forms. If you still can’t find your ancestor in online records they might not have been included in that record type or they are in the record but it’ll take some browsing strategies rather than search form strategies to find.


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