Ancestry.com has spent the past fifteen years developing search technology that can help you find your ancestors in its vast collections. Here are five tips that will help you make the most of that technology.
1. Start with Three
When you’re searching on Ancestry.com, there are two search form options—basic and advanced. You can toggle between the two by clicking Show Advanced and Hide Advanced in the upper right corner of the search box. (Don’t be afraid of Advanced even if you’re new to family history; it just means more options and that’s a good thing.) You’ll notice on the basic search form, the top fields are bolded—the fields for names, a place your ancestor lived, and an estimated birth year. We’ve found that these three pieces of information typically bring the most success when you’re getting started on a search. Regardless of what form you use, start with those three pieces of information. If you find you’re getting too many hits with those three things, add a piece of information to help whittle it down—for example, a birthplace. When you’re choosing what details to add, think about what details you know about your ancestor that are most likely to show up in records (and be indexed). Rotate various pieces of information in and out until you hit on a good combination.
2. Create a Profile
Once you’ve located a record (or records!) for your ancestor, print it out and start gathering clues. The details you find in each record, can help you to formulate new searches, and will also help you to identify him or her in other records. Use a word processor or a pad of paper to create a profile that includes pieces of information like the following:
- Alternate names/spellings
- Names of family members (parents, siblings, spouse, and children)
- Birth date and place (even an estimated date can help)
- Parents’ birthplaces (listed in census records 1880-1930
- Immigration date (check the 1900-1930 censuses for this detail)
- Marriage date
- Known residences (look at the headings of censuses, and beginning in 1880, look for street addresses)
- Church affiliation
- Related surnames (e.g., in-laws, neighbors, business associates, sponsors and witnesses at religious events, etc.)
- Death date and place
Don’t worry if you don’t have all of them right away. In short, any little detail, you can find about your ancestor can be added to his or her profile. As you gather more details and target your searches based on what you learn, you’ll see that profile growing, and you’ll have a much better understanding of that person and that part of your family story.
3. Use Name Filters
Names can be a stumbling point, but the search technology used by Ancestry.com can help. Because we know our ancestor’s names aren’t always spelled the way we expect them to be in records, Ancestry.com employs search technology to not only search for exact matches, but also similar names. You can adjust those settings when you use the Advanced search form by clicking on the link below the name fields that says, Use default settings. The default setting is to include several variant possibilities, but you can manually adjust them to shake up the results you’re seeing.
If you know your ancestor’s name was spelled in several different ways, you might want to try wildcards to help cover all the variants. Here are the rules for wildcards on Ancestry.com
- An asterisk (*) matches zero or more characters.
- A question mark (?) matches one character (but there has to be one character there).
- The first OR last letter of the name can be a wildcard, but not both.
- Names must contain at least three non-wildcard characters.
So, for example, John* would pick up John, Johns, or Johnson. Sm?th would return results for Smith or Smyth. Ann? would find Anne or Anna, but not Ann. Make a list of all the variants you know of for your ancestor’s name and create a list of wildcard solutions that will cover those variants.
5. Get Closer
When you’re searching from the main search form on the home page or through the form on the Search tab, you’re searching through 8 billion records in more than 30,000 collections. There are census records, vital records (birth, marriage and deaths), immigration records, military collections, and so much more. Because these records come in so many different shapes and sizes, sometimes it’s helpful to get closer to the collections you think your ancestor may be found in and search it directly.
Look at the profile you created for your ancestor and look at what details you’re missing. Think about what types of records might include that information. Then check and see what resources Ancestry.com has that might help. A great way to canvass the collections available for the location your ancestor lived is through our Place Pages. To access a Place Page, click on the Search tab and scroll down to the map in the lower left corner of the page. Select a state from the map (or some other area of the world from the tabs above the map), and you’ll be taken to a page that summarized the collections that are available for that place.
Another great place to locate collections of interest is the Card Catalog. Similar to a card catalog you’d find in a library, you will be searching for collections rather than people. You can search the catalog by title or keyword. Searching by title will only search for your term(s) in the title of the database, whereas searching by keyword will also search for your term(s) in the extended description of that database, so a that search would typically bring back more results.
Another way to explore the Card Catalog is to use the filters below the search field. You can apply filters for a geographic location, and then perhaps narrow your search by selecting a particular collection (e.g., Immigration and Emigration; Birth, Marriages & Deaths; Stories, Memories & Histories; etc.). Date filters let you specify a particular decade or century so you’re not looking for your twentieth century ancestor in colonial records.
There are many ways to approach a search for your ancestor. Experiment and have fun with it. You never know what you’ll find until you start searching.