Blog » Searching for Records The official blog of Wed, 17 Sep 2014 15:54:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Do You Have a Search Strategy? Thu, 10 Jul 2014 23:06:01 +0000 Juliana Smith 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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Six Ways to Jump Start Your Family History Research Fri, 24 May 2013 23:47:35 +0000 Crista Cowan Read more]]> Are you brand new to genealogy and not quite sure where to start? Maybe you’ve been doing this for a while and need some inspiration to help you break through that long standing brick wall. As we head into the long weekend, I plan on spending a little time working on my own family history research. If you are going to do the same, here are six ideas to help jump start your genealogy weekend.


1. Talk to your family

Memorial Day was originally a time to pause and remember those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Many of us now use it as a time to memorialize any of our loved ones who have passed on. Still others use the three day weekend to get together with living family members. If you fall into that last category, take advantage of the time you spend with family this weekend to talk to them. Record their stories. Go through that box of pictures and see who they can identify. Ask if anyone knows about a family bible or copies of military service records held by someone in the family. Then take a picture of those people or those documents and attach them to your tree. Speaking of attaching things to your tree…


2. Document your work

That shaky leaf leads to a record hint. Record hints need to be analyzed and considered in context to determine if they really pertain to your person. Then they need to be attached. (Don’t forget that step.) Also, remember that those shaky leaves only provide hints to a small percentage of our most popular databases. There are more records to find. Be sure to search for your family members. Which brings me to…


3. Try a new search technique

I often find myself in a groove. I find something that works and I stick with it. But, I’ve learned that when I try something new, I usually learn something new and, sometimes, I discover something new as well. If you always view your search results by record try viewing them by category. If you only check the Card Catalog to find what databases are available, try using the place pages. If you aren’t sure how to search or you aren’t getting the search results you expect…


4. Watch a video

There’s a video for that. If you aren’t quite sure how to find your immigrant ancestors, there’s a video for that. Need some tips on creating memorial pages to honor the men and women in your family tree who have served in the armed forces? There’s a video for that, too. has a library full of helpful videos and tutorials that just might give you the information you’ve been looking for or that spark of an idea to help you break down that brick wall. And, while we are discussing brick walls…


5. Post your brick wall

Have you posted yours to the appropriate surname or locality message board? The process of writing out what you know, how you know it, and what you are trying to find out is a super useful exercise that might help you see your genealogy challenge in a new light. Posting it to a message board gives you the opportunity to interact with thousands of others who are researching that same surname or that same small county in West Virginia. You never know who may have the information you need.


6. Sign up for a genealogy conference

We are smack dab in the middle of the genealogy conference season. There are opportunities – large and small – all around to attend a conference or Ancestry Day, interact with others who are interested in genealogy and learn some new skills that will help you in your family history journey.


Which of these are you going to try this weekend?

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New Search Results Page On Ancestry.com Fri, 17 May 2013 00:13:26 +0000 Crista Cowan Read more]]> Have you logged on to today and done any record searching? Then you probably noticed that we made some changes overnight to the search results page. This is part of our continued effort to improve performance on the site and the load time required for key pages. This also allows us to work towards better scalability of results and visibility of key features. The new look for these pages uses more modern techniques for styling that require less things to be downloaded to your computer and should load the page faster. (More pages on the site will be using these techniques over the coming months.)

Here is a side by side comparison of the changes we made:

Search Results Categories

The new design allows you to view and filter to categories with a single click.


Search Results Toggle Between Records and Categories

The new design makes the toggle between the record view and the category view of your search results more prominent – and it functions with only a single click.


Search Results Cleaner Design

Database titles are now in bold, making it easier to skim through your search results looking for specific records.

If you have specific feedback about the new design – what do you like, what don’t you like – please let us know by taking the survey available at the top of your search results page.


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Discovering True Love Mon, 04 Feb 2013 18:26:43 +0000 Juliana Smith Read more]]> There’s a story behind that marriage date. But unless the tale has been passed down through family lore or you’re the proud owner of a collection of torrid love letters, you’re never going to get it, right?

Don’t give up so easily. Turns out that story of true love could be hiding in a yearbook or a census record. Or it may be waiting in a document or photo that you’ve already found, viewed, and saved … just waiting for you to take a second look.

Here are some places where we found love stories, what we discovered, and which resources might unlock the tales of romance you’re looking for, too.
The Girl Next Door

Anne Mitchell, Sr. Product Manager, Library and Institutional Accounts

Tip: Explore the pages before and after your ancestor in the census to see if you find the prospective bride or groom living nearby.

Charlton Wallace married Martha Jane Cash in Rockbridge County, Virginia, in 1842. According to her death record, Martha was the daughter of Ready Cash and Mary Hartigan of Rockbridge County.  Unfortunately vital records weren’t kept at the time of Charlton’s birth or death, so I had to do a little digging to find his parents. I knew from his tombstone that Charlton was born in Rockbridge County in 1823 and died there in 1903, so Rockbridge County seemed a good place to start.

Identifying the family would be tricky since the 1840 census listed only heads of households by name, with children simply tallied by number and age range. Assuming Charlton was living with his parents in 1840—and that they lived in Rockbridge County, where he was born, married, and died—I narrowed the Wallace households that had a boy in the correct age range down to three.

Browsing the neighbors of one of the candidates gave me a very big clue as to the likely identity of Charlton’s probable parents, or at least the folks he was living with. As I paged back to the previous census page, living next door to William Wallace I found the household of Ready Cash. Since then I’ve found further evidence that makes it pretty clear that Charlton married the girl next door.

William Wallace household, 1840 U.S. Census, Rockbridge Co., Virginia

Ready Cash household, 1840 U.S. Census, Rockbridge Co., Virginia


Shipmates for Life?

Juliana Smith, Sr. Marketing and Communications Associate

Tip: Browse through the passenger lists of immigrant ancestors to see if a future couple was traveling together or met on board.

My great-great-grandmother Margaret Dooner was a first-generation American born in Brooklyn, New York, in January 1841. Her parents were Irish immigrants, and her baptism record from St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church lists her parents as John Dooner and Eliza Moran. Since Dooner is a relatively unusual name by Irish standards, I thought I would try to locate John’s arrival in the U.S. in U.S. passenger lists. Using the 1841 birth date of the couple’s eldest child, Margaret, as a starting point, I limited my search to the years prior to that and found a John Dooner who is just about the right age coming to New York on July 10, 1839. I glanced at the others on the page and found a number of twenty-somethings, most of whom appear to be traveling without family, although there were a few young families sprinkled in.

Since the manifest was only two pages long, I scanned the other names on the list, and although there were no other Dooners, I ran across an Eliza Moran on the following page. Because Moran is a common surname, I will have to gather more evidence to prove this is John’s Eliza. It’s also possible that they were coming from the same area of Ireland and knew each other before immigrating. But in either case it’s a fun find and will be interesting to investigate just where love may have bloomed.

Ship “Ganges,” arriving at New York 10 July 1839, p. 1

Ship “Ganges,” arriving at New York 10 July 1839, p. 2


He Joined the What?

Loretto “Lou” Szucs, Vice President, Community Relations

Tip: If your ancestor served in the military, his pension file could include surprising personal details. Some military pension records and indexes can be found online at and

When my daughter and I uncovered my great-grandmother Jane Howley’s file for a Civil War pension based on her husband, Thomas’s, service in the Union Navy, we hit the jackpot. The file, found in the Navy Widows’ Certificates collection on, provided great genealogical details, as well as a number of depositions from family and friends.

A deposition by friend Margaret Freil, who knew Jane and Thomas before they were married, even revealed how they met:

I first became acquainted with Thomas Howley sometime about 1855 or 1856. He came to our house on Water St. near Fulton Ferry, Brooklyn, N.Y.  about that time and boarded with my parents. He was called a greenhorn then and I understand that he had just came here from England. My father introduced Thomas Howley to this claimant Jane Howley, whom I knew as long as I can remember.

I even learned a little bit about the early years of their marriage. There are 123 pages in the file, largely because Thomas enlisted using his mother’s maiden name of Moore, which left Jane with some explaining to do. She says,

 I objected to him going in the service because I was then with child and I did not think it was right for him to go. I did not know he had enlisted until after he went in the recovery ship and then I was told by Lou Barnett, who enlisted him, and brought his civilian clothes back to me. Yes sir, this man Barnett enlisted him, and I understand he got half of the bounty money.

Jane went to see Thomas a couple days later.

I asked him why he enlisted under the name of Moore and he said he did not want me to know it till he had enlisted and he then handed me $400 half of the bounty money he had received.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that meeting. Jane goes on in a later deposition to tell us that following his enlistment, “I felt very sore over it because I had one small child and was with child at the time.”

This is just a small sample of the details that we found in that file. The depositions are full of insights into the lives of all involved, and the clues we found will no doubt lead to more information.

Check for pension indexes and images of some files online at and If you find the record in an index, you can request the record from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Other Resources

Newspapers. Check newspapers for engagement, marriage, and anniversary announcements that could include the story of how the happy couple met. Social pages may list the names of people at events and give you insights into their social circles.

You may even find articles with incredible details about an ancestor’s love story. The following article appeared in the New Castle News (New Castle, Pennsylvania) of 9 December 1910.

“New Castle News” (New Castle, Pennsylvania) of 9 December 1910


Maps. Find your ancestors street addresses in city directories, censuses beginning in 1880, and other records and plot locations on a map. Contemporary maps can give you a general sense of a location, although bear in mind that streets may have been renamed or renumbered. Historical maps, like those found in the following collections, can be even more useful:

From U.S., Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860–1918, Carbon County, Pennsylvania, 1875


Update your email preferences to have articles like this one delivered directly to your email. To sign up for this free service, click on your account profile, and select Email Preferences. Then check the box for the Ancestry Monthly Update.


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