5 Quick Tips For Finding Genealogy Records in Online Collections

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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.

Expand or contract date ranges

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

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

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

Expand or contract locations

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

Search by surname only

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

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

Search by a first name only

  • 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).

  • 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!

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

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Use wildcards (*) and (?).

  • 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.

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

Search for a relative

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

  • 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 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.

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 document, but it’ll take some browsing strategies rather than search form strategies to find.

For more online genealogy research tips, check out these blog posts:

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