Ancestry Blog » Searching for Records The official blog of Ancestry Sat, 25 Apr 2015 13:00:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Coming Soon! Mobile Search for iOS Mon, 09 Feb 2015 22:22:09 +0000 Michael Lawless Read more]]> Search Start 2Later this month, we’ll be releasing the first Ancestry app update focused on searching our huge archive of content in a mobile specific interface. To date, the iOS App has provided access to your family trees and hints on the go, but searching through our collections hasn’t been readily available. With this release of Search, that’s going to change.

You’ll soon find two new options in the timeline view for your ancestors.  In addition to all the great hints we’ve already been bringing to you with the “View Hints” button, we’ll now be introducing the “Search Records” button where we’ll immediately take you to the most relevant records for your ancestor.  Also, within the timeline view, you will find our new Guided Search feature where we compare the details of your ancestor’s life and our record collection.  We’ll look for gaps we can fill with records that add new important information and add a blue bubble on to your timeline where we think we’ve got a strong match for a birth, death, marriage, or residence event.

Once you decide to search, from either starting point, you’ll immediately be given our best search results based on the details known about your ancestor. The interface in this view is tuned for mobile devices, providing a slider to narrow or broaden the search results according to commonly used search filters.  This allows you to focus on the records that most accurately match your ancestor, or broaden your criteria and find more matches with similar names and similar dates, looking for that hidden gem.

Search Results

Here’s another helpful feature.  If you know that there isn’t a marriage event for a person but you get a marriage search suggestion in your timeline, you can slide this suggestion to the left, revealing a garbage can, and remove these suggestions from your view. After using this new functionality, we liked it so much, we’ve added it to all the elements of the timeline.  Need to get rid of an inaccurate fact or historical insight you find uninteresting?  Simply swipe left and tap on the garbage can to delete it from your timeline.

In addition to our simple filter, you can focus in on specific categories of our collections. At launch we’ll be bringing the four most common categories of records;

Birth - including Birth, Baptism, and Christenings

Marriage - including Marriage and Divorce records

Death - including Death, Burial, Cemetery, and Obituary records

Censuses - including all of our census and voter list records

This will be followed up by regular releases of our other most valuable collections, starting with military and immigration in the coming months.

If you’re looking to access all of the data and search settings from the web, that’s still possible from the same path as before.  Go in to an ancestor’s gallery, and click “Search records” at the bottom of the view.  This will give you the option of conducting a search through the new app interface, or through the older web interface.

We hope you will enjoy  search for mobile, and we look forward to bringing you more search related features in the Ancestry apps throughout the year.  Look for this update coming soon!

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Five Mistakes to Avoid When Researching Your Family History Sun, 05 Oct 2014 13:16:53 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> We all make mistakes! The key to success in family history research, as in life, is to learn from them. In an effort to guide you through your genealogical journey, we have created this list containing the top five mistakes to avoid when researching your family tree.

1. Assuming a family name is only spelled one way

Family names can be spelled in a variety of ways. Just because your family name has been spelled in a particular way for as long as you can remember doesn’t mean it always has. Our ancestors, and indeed those people who entered information on our ancestor’s behalf, were not infallible. Mistakes in the recording of your family name may have created the family name you know today. Callaghan could be Callan, Dillane could be Dillon, Smith could be Smyth etc. Search for phonetic variations of your surname and use an asterisk to return more results. For example, searching (John*) will return results for John, Johnson etc.

2. Assuming you are related to a famous person

We all want to find a famous person in our family tree. Many of us will have royal connections, rock stars or heroes from history in our tree, but many of us will not. Never accept a family story or hearsay as proof of a connection. The temptation can be to start with the famous person and then try to find a connection to your family. You should always start with yourself and work back. If there is a famous connection it will appear if you have diligently researched back through the generations of your tree.

3. Researching the wrong family

I know what you’re thinking. How could you possibly research the wrong family? You know who you’re looking for – right? Researching the wrong family can easily happen if you jump to conclusions early in your research. Just because the James Smith you have found seems to fit the bill does not necessarily mean that he is your James Smith. Always wait until the sources prove a connection before moving on. This helps to avoid accidentally researching the wrong family.

4. Skipping a generation

Our ancestors had little regard for the toil they were creating for the family history researchers of the future when they named their children. Many of us have family trees containing more than one Michael, John or Mary! With names running through generations like this it is important to write down and match up your dates and locations for each person with the same name. This will help avoid inadvertently skipping a generation.

5. Not documenting your sources

Keep calm and cite your sources! Always document where you have found your information. Your research is your legacy to future generations who research your family tree. One simple mistake or un-sourced addition to your tree could cause others to make assumptions and in turn make mistakes in their own research.

Feel free to post research questions to the Ancestry Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our online communities are an amazing resource with many experienced researchers who are willing to help other members. All you have to do is ask!


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The Dreaded Brick Wall. What to do next? Sun, 28 Sep 2014 09:18:02 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> The Dreaded Brick Wall


How can I get past a brick wall?

When you run across a brick wall in your research, what do you do? You may be tempted to send your laptop on an expedition out of the first floor window, and who could blame you? A brick wall can be incredibly frustrating.

Some researchers might advise you to abandon the individual concerned for a period of time and move on with the rest of your family tree, and there is some wisdom to that. You’ll want to check back on that individual from time to time though. Ancestry is constantly adding new records to the site and other members are adding trees every day. A brick wall today may not be a brick wall in a few week’s time.

Review your research and revisit the card catalog

Sometimes the answers to our questions are waiting in the research we’ve already conducted. Revisit the records you’ve gathered. You may find that you have overlooked an important detail or missed a connection.

Survey what resources are at your disposal. Ancestry members will want to head for the Card Catalog to see what collections may hold the answers they seek and search them directly. A new collection may have crept in under your radar. Use the filters on the left to narrow your search by geographic location, and if you like, by record type.

Take a step back . . .

In family history, a step back may mean revisiting more recent ancestors. In your haste to move on to the next generation, are there records you overlooked or that were previously inaccessible to you–records that may knock down that brick wall? Seeking them out will give you a more rounded picture of those recent ancestors, and you may uncover new clues.

Talk to family members again

When you begin researching your family history, it is important to talk to other family members who may have information on your shared ancestry. When you hit a brick wall in your research, revisit these relatives or have a discussion with them over the phone or through email about what you have found since your last conversation. Share your recent discoveries with them. New names and locations may jog their memories and you may hear previously untold family stories.

Go beyond the direct line

Go beyond your ancestor and his or her siblings and expand your search to include distant relatives. The records of in-laws, half-siblings, cousins, step-parents and whoever else you can dig up, may include details missing in the records of your direct ancestors.

Use social media and other online resources

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you use Facebook you can search for living relatives who may hold the key to your brick wall. Feel free to post research questions to the Ancestry Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our online communities are an amazing resource with many experienced researchers who are willing to help other members. All you have to do is ask!

Try searching for an elusive ancestor into your favorite search engine. You may be surprised at what you can uncover in this way. The most important thing is not to lose hope. We have all faced a brick wall in our research, but with perseverance all things are possible.

Photo: Lars Thomsen. Flickr creative commons.

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Do You Have a Search Strategy? Thu, 10 Jul 2014 23:06:01 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> 20140708-search-downloadAs I write this, I’m getting ready for a trip to Utah. As a fairly frequent traveler, I know that to make the trip less stressful, I need lists. Lists are what keep me from wandering around the house searching for nothing in particular, grasping randomly for things I might need, and missing items I definitely need.

With a little forethought and a checklist, I do a much better job packing and spend less time running around my house like a crazy person.

When I’m searching for my ancestors, I like to take this strategic approach as well. A good research plan with a clear goal will allow you to choose the best path for your search.

There are a lot of different ways to search for your ancestors on, and different strategies will work best in different situations. For example, if you’re just starting to research a family member, you might start with a global search of all the collections on so you can grab the low-hanging fruit that will come up with just a few basic facts like a name, year of birth, and a place where the person lived. But if you have a specific goal, like finding him or her in the 1920 U.S. census, it doesn’t make sense to wade through all 14 billion records; going directly to 1920 will have you working with a much smaller and more manageable subset of the collections.

You could also search on a category level or in one of the many special collections that Ancestry has created for specific record types or ethnic research.

To help you navigate the different types of searches and what situations each one is best suited for, this month we’ve kicked off a series of free downloads on the various ways to search In coming months we’ll take a closer look at the various types of search and include tips that will have you searching like a pro in no time. Download our Search Strategies guide.

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Ask Ancestry Anne: Search Tip #2: A Rose By Any Other Name Might be Rosey — Name Filters Will Catch That Fri, 07 Mar 2014 17:16:40 +0000 Anne Gillespie Mitchell Read more]]>

If you find you are getting too many results when you do a search, its time to try out name filters when you do a search. We have over 13 Billion records and making sure you narrow your search results down to a reasonable amount, is probably a good idea.

First you will need to be on advanced search.  It’s in the upper right corner of the search form.


Underneath the name boxes on the form, you’ll see “Use Default Settings” which loosely translates into anything close or in the case of first names, if everything else matches, this doesn’t have to.



First Name Filters

If you click on “Use default settings” link under First & Middle Name(s) you will be presented with a list of options:


You can choose a variety of options here.

  • Restrict to exact : returns only records with what you’ve typed in. Be sure you are asking for what you want.
  • Phonetic : if it sounds the same or close, we will return it, such as Catherine and Katherine.
  • Similar meanings : William, Will, Bill, Billy and Wm all stand for some sort of William. This matches them all.
  • Initials : For those pesky records where the record keeper decided an initial was just enough.

Last Name Filters

Last name filters have similar options:


  • Restrict to exact : returns only records with what you’ve typed in. Be sure you are asking for what you want.
  • Soundex: This is really in here for historical reasons. It is a algorithm used to compress last names to a series of similar sounds.  For more, you can read the Soundex entry on Wikipedia
  • Phonetic : if it sounds the same or close, we will return it like Smyth and Smith
  • Similar meanings : Schmidt and Smith

Happy Searching!

Ancestry Anne

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Local Histories: Let it Snow Sun, 23 Feb 2014 17:17:06 +0000 Lou Szucs Read more]]> Being a history lover, I subscribe to a whole lot of paper and online newsletters and magazines. A few weeks back, an item in the Wisconsin Historical Society weekly email caught my eye – reservations were being taken for old-fashioned horse-drawn sleigh rides. How fun would it be to feel, hear, and see what our grandparents did before sights and sounds like snow blowers and snowplows took over? I love modern conveniences, but the idea of a romantic sleigh ride in the quiet countryside sounds wonderful.

The description of the sleigh ride reminded me of a letter that my grandfather saved. In the letter, dated February 7, 1895, the writer is trying to organize a sleigh ride for a group of friends that included my grandfather and the girl he would marry later that year—my grandmother.  From the letter and penciled math on the back of it, apparently they needed ten couples to make it economically feasible.


Letters, journals, and mementos that our ancestors saved may not yield hard evidence of births, marriages, and deaths that we can pin to our family trees, but they can provide personality insights that can’t be found elsewhere. Why did my grandfather save this letter? Was there special sentiment attachment to it? Might he have proposed to my grandmother on that sleigh ride? I’ll never know, but these things serve to tickle our curiosity about our people, prompting us to scratch around until we learn more about their lives and the times and places where they lived.

I’ve done a lot of scratching around in my efforts to learn more about Brooklyn, New York, where almost all of my American ancestors lived and died. As I was thinking about the snowy conditions challenging so many of us lately, it seemed like a good time to look at one of my favorite books on The civil, political, professional and ecclesiastical history and commercial and industrial record of the county of Kings and the city of Brooklyn, N.Y.: from 1683 to 1884, by Henry Reed Stiles. This time, I thought I’d see how our ancestors handled winter’s wrath—and even made the best of it. For example, Stiles describes the winter of 1757–58, when the court house in Flatbush was saved from a fire “by the energetic efforts of the people, who extinguished the fire by throwing snow-balls upon it.”


By the time my ancestors had arrived in 1820, Brooklyn had trained firemen who presumably had more than snowballs to fight fires with.

Stiles also included a reproduction of a snow scene painted by Francis Guy. I especially love that he provided a key to the image so we can see who was who, who owned the buildings, and what each one was.


The reproduction below is a rare pre-camera view of Brooklyn that gives us a sense of what a snow-covered Brooklyn was like. For more colorful views of paintings by Francis Guy, see this exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum website.

Anyone who has been stranded in a snowstorm might feel special empathy for 600 people who were “forced to remain all night in the street cars” in Brooklyn on February 6, 1882, because of a “great fall of snow,” also noted by Stiles.


All of these insights came from a search of Stiles’ book using the keyword “snow.” There are thousands of local histories on that could contain insights on your ancestors that are just waiting to be discovered. The trick to uncovering them is to navigate to the collection and search it directly. Here’s how:

  1. Click on the Search tab and scroll down to the map at the bottom of the page.
  2. Select the state where your ancestors lived.
  3. Scroll down the list of collections by category to the last one: Stories, Memories, & Histories.
  4. Browse through the titles on the state level, or select a county from the box on the right side of the page.
  5. Search for a topic of interest by entering a term in the keyword field (e.g., drought, winter, epidemic, flood, market, etc.). You could also search for a year that was significant to your ancestors, perhaps the year the family arrived, the year a child was born, or the year a couple married.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the names and dates that we forget to do a little digging for the stories. And those stories can make for some darned interesting reading on a snowy evening.


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The Genealogist’s Toolkit: Ethnic Research Thu, 17 Oct 2013 17:02:04 +0000 Pam Velazquez Read more]]> Once you have built your family tree a bit and have gotten into the “greats”, past your grandparents and farther back into other centuries, research methodologies and best practices start to evolve depending on your specific ethnicity. Research for each ethnicity is different and requires its own tailored approach for maximum success.

Research Guides

The following are resource guides that are available according to ethnicity. These guides are downloadable PDFs that you can read, save, print or bookmark as resources when you start to discover your international roots. Many have language tips, notable collections or databases, and can help you get the right start depending on where your ancestor hunt takes you.


African American Family Research on (Free downloadable PDF guide)

Finding Your Canadian Ancestors on (Free downloadable PDF guide)

Finding Your German Ancestors on (Free downloadable PDF guide)

Irish Research in the U.S. and Ireland (Free downloadable PDF guide)

Finding Your Swedish Ancestors on (Free downloadable PDF guide)

Finding Your Ancestors from the UK and Ireland (Free downloadable PDF guide)


Research Centers

Much like our research guides, the following research centers can help with just about any nuance you might encounter with the ethnicity you’re working on – whether it’s reading a record, translating fields or listing state archives, these research centers can help!


Dutch Research Center

French Research Center

German Research Center

Italian Research Center

Swedish Research Center

Spanish-language Records Research Center

Jewish Resource Page on

Our Jewish genealogy page will help you get started searching our Jewish ancestors. Thanks to our partnerships with various Jewish historical and genealogical institutions, you can start searching and learn more about Jewish genealogy. This page can help with a community locator based on surname as well as a names variations database.


Each specific ethnicity has its pitfalls and limitations and being able to understand them is crucial to successfully researching your ancestors. Some ethnicities pose language barriers while others a shear lack of records available at your fingertips on the web. Becoming familiar with the historical context of certain ethnic groups and just knowing what historical documents exist and which don’t will lead you in the right direction.



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What’s New: CT Work Stubs, NV Deaths, More JewishGen Mon, 26 Aug 2013 23:56:54 +0000 Paul Rawlins Read more]]>  

New records released ranged from New England to the Nevada desert.

By 1882 child labor advocates were gaining ground, and in Connecticut, working children between 8 and 14 had to attend at least 12 weeks of school. In 1895, children under 14 were prohibited from working at “gainful employment” at all. In 1903, the Connecticut State Board of Education issued these School Age Certificates for children over age 14 so they could work.

ct certs


The titles to three more Holocaust databases from our partnership with JewishGen that launced last week speak for themselves:


On the other hand, the title of the Nevada, Death Index, 1980–2012, underpromises and overdelivers a bit, since it provides a date and state of birth as well as a death date. (Which is a better payoff than the last time I played the slots, I can tell you that.)


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Begin with what you know: Christina Applegate Wed, 31 Jul 2013 18:42:40 +0000 Kristie Wells Read more]]> Stage and screen star Christina Applegate’s father, Robert, has lived with a troubling mystery his entire life — just who was his mother? Raised by his paternal grandparents, Robert has only fleeting memories of his mother. Christina sets out to find her story.

She starts with one valuable piece of information: Robert’s birth certificate. She learns that his mother’s name was Lavina Shaw and she lived in Trenton, New Jersey.

A visit to the Trenton Public library yields a remarkable discovery: a picture of Lavina and her sister, Delilah, in the society pages when Lavina was about 13. But a search of the 1940 census on shows the family’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse just a few years later.

As Christina digs further she finds a 1941 marriage record for Lavina Shaw and her grandfather, Paul Applegate. But the marriage was troubled almost from the start. Court documents reveal the couple agreed to a separation in 1942, as each party made serious accusations against the other.

Ultimately, Lavina retained custody of Robert in a 1945 divorce. So how did Robert end up with his paternal grandmother?

The answer may lie in a death record. Court documents identified Lavina’s mother as another caretaker for Robert. But she died in 1946, shortly after her daughter’s divorce.

Then Christina finds a surprising clue — Lavina’s own 1955 death certificate, which states that she died from tuberculosis and cirrhosis due to chronic alcoholism. Is that the answer? After her mother died, did Lavina’s alcoholism leave her unable to care for Robert on her own?

It’s a painful past for Christina to offer her father, but a visit to Lavina’s grave provides an unexpected chance for a mother and son to exchange promises — and a gift.

Christina Applegate’s journey took her from birth records to the 1940 census to death records. You can find all of these on — and maybe the answers to your own family mysteries as well.

Learn more about Christina’s journey or watch the full episode on


Research Notes from our ProGenealogists team:

When you begin any family tree, you start with what you know and then work backwards in time. Christina Applegate didn’t want to go far, just back to her father, Bob’s, mother. Neither of them had known her, but Christina had her father’s birth certificate, which gave us information about his mother’s maiden name, date of birth, and where she was living when Bob was born. With this information, we were ready to check the 1940 and 1930 census records at


Here we found Lavina Shaw living with her parents in Trenton, New Jersey.

We learned that Lavina was named after her mother and that her father, Ovid, was working as a carpenter in 1930.


Looking at the family in 1940, they had fallen on hard times with both Ovid and 18-year-old Lavina out of work.

These census records provided the foundation we needed to start looking for birth, marriage and death records for all members of the family.




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Browsing Records on [Video] Thu, 25 Jul 2013 22:20:22 +0000 Crista Cowan Read more]]> Did you know that not all records on are indexed? Even when there is an index available, sometimes it is useful to view an entire set of passenger lists or a whole neighborhood in the census to find the information you need.

In this video, we share how to use the “browse” features for any collection of images on You’ll discover how to understand records in context and gain another tool for finding those obscure relatives that might help you break through a genealogy brick wall.

Watch the video now on YouTube:

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