Using Ancestry: Getting Closer to the Data, by Juliana Smith

Tobin Immigration Search 1841Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reviewing the various search options at Ancestry. So far we’ve mainly focused on global searches–that is, searches of all Ancestry databases at once. For those of you who missed them, the article for Ranked Search and the one on Exact Search are both available on the blog. Today we’re going to get closer to the records we’re seeking and we’ll see some examples of how zeroing in on a particular collection or individual database can add more power to your searches.

Not All Created Equal
The trouble with global search is that records come in many shapes and sizes. A one size fits all search template isn’t going to give you as much power as one that is tailored to a particular collection or database. For example, you’re not going to find a ship name or arrival date on a census record, and likewise, you’re not likely to find a “relationship to head of household” on a passenger arrival record. So if you are particularly interested in a collection, it pays to go directly to that collection.

Let’s use the Immigration Collection as an example. It can be difficult to recognize ancestors in some arrival records, particularly in those where there aren’t images currently available to browse for family groups traveling together. When I first began my search for one of our family members in the collection, I didn’t have a lot to go on. I knew that the Tobins had started appearing in New York City directories and records in the 1840s, but beyond that, I didn’t have a lot to go on. I wasn’t sure of family structure because the only thing I had to go on at that time was a letter from an aunt that said my third great-grandfather, Thomas Tobin who was in the hat business had a brother named Peter who was also a hatter. Later census records for him filled in some other blanks, but other than being enumerated with a “Mary Tobin,” age eighty-six in 1860 living with him and his wife, I didn’t have much in the way of family structure. And since the 1860 census doesn’t state relationships to the head of household, I couldn’t be certain this was his mother.

A search of the Immigration Collection at Ancestry for Peter Tobin turned up a number of hits in various databases, but the New York Passenger Arrivals, 1820-50 caught my eye because of the time frame it covered. Images are not available for this database, but it was still well worth my time to search it.

There were three Peter Tobins in that database, but the last one, arriving 2 June 1841 on the ship “Robert Isaac” at age sixteen, seemed to be the closest in age to the man I was looking for. But beyond age, there wasn’t a lot of identifying information. How could I determine whether this was him? I removed his first name and narrowed my search of that database using the search box at the bottom of the page, adding the ship name and year of arrival in both fields (1841 to 1841). In the event that the Robert Isaac had made more than one voyage that year, I also added “jun” in the keyword field. Since the date was indexed, that would help me narrow my search to only the one trip. (Notice I used “Jun” as opposed to “June.” Since the month is abbreviated in the database, I need to follow that format in my search criteria or I’ll rule out the hits I want. I’m doing an exact search and the database will only return exact matches.) Here’s what I found. (Click on the image accompanying this post to see the results.)

Geo? Tobin, age 23
Mary Tobin, age 63
Peter Tobin, age 16
W. Tobin, age 69

Although Mary like to play it a little loose with her age, this entry was a good start in establishing the family structure and through other records, I have built on what I found here further.

Since Thomas was missing, I also searched that entire ship by leaving the name fields completely blank. I had hoped to find him listed as Fobin or Sobin or with some other variation, but as it turned out these appear to be the only family members who were on that voyage. To be certain though, I plan to look at that film at the National Archives one of these days, since this is only an index and could be flawed. The fact that George’s name is listed as “Geo?” could indicate that the film was hard for the indexer to read.

A Census Example
The search templates that are found on the individual database pages are tailored explicitly to the information that was indexed and offer a much more powerful search of that data than a global search would. In another example, rather than getting the family structure from my find, I was able to use known family structure to locate a family that wasn’t coming up in other searches.

My uncle had been searching for his family with the name of Barnby in the 1930 census for years but had been unable to locate them. He knew they had been living in Ohio at the time, but various searches turned up no results. The 1930 search template (as well as several other censuses) allows you to specify other family members. Since given names are more easily recognizable than last names, I entered his brother’s first name of Charles, father’s first name of Henry, and mother’s first name of Mary, also specifying Ohio. There were only thirty-five hits for this combination, among them a Charles W. Bamer. It appears that the enumerator took the name down as Barnes, and it was further mistranscribed as Bamer. The address, presence of other family members, and other identifying information made us sure that we had the correct family though.

Finding What’s Available
The challenge in going directly to a database to search, is in knowing what’s available. I’ve been creating this newsletter for more than nine years now, and I still lose track of what databases are available for the areas in which I have an interest. With around 25,000 databases currently available at Ancestry, seeking out information that applies to my ancestors might seem a bit daunting, but there are several ways to narrow down a search.

One way to refresh is to browse through the list of databases by geographical location through the map/list in the lower-left corner of the Search tab. When you get to the location in question, you’re presented with a list of databases, sorted by record type. If there are too many for a particular record type, you can click on the last link to view the entire list for that category.

In most cases the number of databases you’ll be scanning is manageable, but when you get to Family and Local Histories, you may find that there are too many to search by state or province. The Card Catalog provides another route to finding the database you need, and with it you can narrow your search. 

When using the Card Catalog, I always use the keyword search field, rather than the title field. The title field will only return results if the term used appears in the title, while the keyword search will return results from the title, as well as the database description. For example, let’s do a search for
Brooklyn New York

In the Keyword field, you get 130 databases, while the title search only returns fourteen. That’s because with databases like New York City Births, 1891-1902, and New York, Marriage Newspaper Extracts, 1801-1880 from the Barber Collection don’t include the word Brooklyn, but mention it in the descriptive material of the database’s coverage.

You can narrow your catalog searches by record type if you’re still wading through too many titles, so that’s another way to help you zero in on the information you need.

Next Week. . .
Next week we’ll be looking at one more way to get at Ancestry data with the various search tabs. If you have a tip you’d like to share, please visit this article on the blog and post it in the comments section.

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

3 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Getting Closer to the Data, by Juliana Smith

  1. Hi,

    A search ability that I think is very needed is one to be able to narrow searches by a customizable time period, and by being able to prioritize search dimensions. At present you can specify up to 20 years one side or other of a birth date or other vital date. But that isn’t really sufficient. For example, if on the global search of all databases you enter John Doe and that he died in such a year and such and such a place, you will get the very closest census matches and then less close ones, followed by the closes family tree matches and then less close ones, etc. Whereas I and doubtless others would like to see the results ordered first by a time period, then by locality, etc. With census searches for example, I would like to see the closest time/locality results for the exact spelling input, and then those for variant spellings, *before* seeing any outside the preferred time/locality frames. While I realize you can make a place of residence exact on the global search page, and thus get some of this functionality, it is totally lacking on database specific search pages like ones for a specific federal census year, where again you can only specify a 20 year interval both ways.


  2. Juliana Smith,

    Check to see if “Geo” is not “Tho”…this may explain your Thomas…he may not be missing at all. Just a thought…I’ve seen this problem before!


  3. Thanks Bill! I did follow up (as we’ll discuss in next week’s column) and it turns out that Geo?? is actually Jno. in the images. This complicates things a bit since there is a George in our Tobin family, but I’m not aware of a John. This family just loves to throw me the curve balls! 😉

    More to come…

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