Using Ancestry: Miscellaneous Search Tips, by Juliana Smith

Clipper ship For the past several weeks, we’ve been covering various ways to search the data at Ancestry (see the links following this article if you missed these articles). This week we’re going to stray a little and we’ll begin this installment with some hand-slapping. Not high-fives mind you, this will be hand-slapping of the reprimand variety. The target of this reprimand? Yours truly.

Tobins Revisited
In last week’s column, I used an example of how I had found a possible passenger arrival for my Tobin ancestors by searching by surname, ship name, and date.

In the article, I said, “Images are not available for this database. . .” but as my co-worker Chad Milliner told me in an e-mail, these records are also available as part of a larger database–New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 and in this database there are images available. Clearly I hadn’t investigated all the possibilities when this new database was posted. Slap! I was still basing research on my original search from several years ago and hadn’t taken the time to follow up with the original record. Slap! Slap!

Well, at least now I could remedy the problem. I was off to search New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. A search using the same criteria in this database gave me some new results. Searching for Tobin on the “Robert Isaac” in 1841, I found:

Jno Tobin
Mary Tobin
W Tobin

What? Where were “Geo??” and Peter Tobin from the other index? And who the heck was John? I don’t know a John!

Mary’s birth date of 1798 also gave me pause. She had dropped a couple decades on me. Now, I am used to ancestors playing it loose with their age, but twenty years?

Tobins on Passenger list, Jun 1841, ship Robert IsaacFortunately after viewing the image, I determined that Peter is indeed traveling with them. And it’s tough to make out the first number in Mary’s age. Could be forty-three; could be sixty-three. I tried comparing the number to other numbers on the page, but it doesn’t look like legible fours or sixes on that page. What do you think? (Click on the image to the left to enlarge it.)

The bottom line–I still have a bit to go before I can determine for certain whether or not this is my Tobin family. While John could be another sibling I’m not aware of, it serves as an important reminder that viewing the original can change the whole picture and my research isn’t complete without it.

So, from here I was off in search of more information, and as I searched I remembered a few more search tips we should keep in mind when searching Ancestry collections (or any collection for that matter).

Try Initials
If you’re having a tough time finding an ancestor in a particular record group, try a search using on the first initial of the given name. In looking at other passenger arrival records for my Tobins, I found an entire passenger list where only the first initial was recorded. 

This is not only true of passenger arrivals, but also some censuses. In the 1860 Census for Brooklyn, New York’s Sixth Ward, Second District, the vast majority of given names are represented by initials. For example on image seventy-five of that district, only seven of the forty names on the page include a given name or abbreviation for the given name. The remaining thirty-three names are represented by initials.

This isn’t an isolated incident either. For that same year, in New York City, Ninth Ward, Second District, I may have found my elusive James Kelly listed as J Kelly. On that page only one of forty people are enumerated with a first name given and one woman didn’t even get an initial. She is enumerated as Mrs. McIntire. Who knows how many more lazy enumerators and record keepers there were! Give it a try.

Middle Initials
If you know your ancestor’s middle initial, try using that in the field for given names in place of the first name. Where available, middle initials are typically indexed in that field and using only that middle initial, you could pick up on a badly mangled given name.

When in Doubt, Leave It Out
Going back to passenger arrivals, in the New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, there is a search field on this database for “Ethnicity/Race/Nationality.” I typically leave this blank. The problem with this field is that many of the records don’t include that information, so by adding it you could be ruling out the person you’re seeking.

For example, try a search for James Kelly. A straight out search for this very common Irish name turns up 6,042 hits. Now add Irish. The number of hits is reduced to 1,952. More than two out of three of the James Kellys are gone, even though many of them are listed as departing from an Irish port and were very likely Irish. If you need to narrow your search, try rotating it in and out and trying port of departure as an alternative. Even here care needs to be used though. Using just the country of departure will often be picked up in that field, but there are a number of entries where only a county is listed in that field and no country. Try a search using Wexford or Sligo to see some examples. Also, the country is sometimes abbreviated in a way you might not think to search. (Ex: Irl for Ireland)

It’s a good idea to become familiar with database structure and abbreviations. Try searches for common names or even just a year or location to get a feel for the various ways search fields are listed. This will allow you to better tailor your searches to the content within.

Search for All Members of the Family
As we mentioned last week, searching for other members of the family can often be helpful. As I pointed out earlier in this column, Peter Tobin was missing from the index for the images of the New York Passenger Lists. After finding the rest of the family, I searched by ship name and date and browsing through all the passengers found him indexed as Sobin.

Next Time. . .
We’ve dealt largely with historical records over the past few articles. Next time we’ll talk about searching what’s often referred to as “rich content”–photos, yearbooks, maps, etc.

Past articles in this series:

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

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.

17 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Miscellaneous Search Tips, by Juliana Smith

  1. Hi Julia:

    The link to the printer friendly version seems to be dead. I get a message that I’m behind the firewall again, but I know that’s not true..


  2. I’m convinced its a “5”. There are other ages with 1,2,3,4,6,8,9 in it. So its either a 5 or 7 and when you look at the slant used in the letter M and other characters, the writer would have likely written a 5 this way. That’s my take. Of course I’m sure you’ll get many convincing answers.

  3. Julia,
    I searched several days for my Robert Smith in Iowa and no luck. I remembered you once wrote to search for parents or siblings so I looked for brother, George. Found him first try and living next door was Robert Smith! Well, he was listed as BOB Smith.
    So, be sure to search with the nickname for your ancestor.

  4. I would agree with Allison – it looks like 1h but, just add a small horizontal line to the top of the long vertical and – you have a lazily or very quickly written 5.

  5. Oops, sorry, was looking at the record of Peter when I said 1h, should, of course, have been 6h – making Mary 65

  6. I agree with Allison, too. I noticed there were no 5s on that page, but very clear 4s and 6s. So that number is most likely a 5. Look at some other pages and see if you can spot any other 5s.

  7. Tobin shows age of 69-definitive 6 and 9.
    Mary shows age of 43-the 4 is very different from the 6 above.
    Jno shows age of 23-definitive 2 and 3.
    Peter shows age of 14-definitive 1 and 4.
    The 4 in Mary’s age and the 4 in Peter’s name are identical.
    On the manifest page, enlarge or use the magnifier to clarify the image of the ages and compare them to ages on other pages by the same person.
    Having transcribed physicians orders for a number of years, I can pretty well tell you about figuring out what been entered on a page….Thanks, Joan.

  8. They look like poorly written 6’s after the first very well defined 6. I blew the image up 400% to get a better look. Still, the numbers are terrible and look almost like someone entirely different wrote them, except that the rest of the writing appears to be from the same person.

    When blown up, the poorly made 6’s look like one long line followed by a short one, though the one for Mary does appear to have a slight curl back to the first line. These do not resemble the two 4’s at the bottom at all. First there are no horizontal lines to complete a 4, and the first line is far too long when compared to the two bottom 4’s.

  9. Sorry about the trouble with the link. It is working now.

    And thanks to everyone who’s helping me to decipher Mary’s age!

  10. It is very hard to tell, but because there isn’t a curl for the six I’m thinking it’s a 4. But as far as the Jno – I think that is Geo. If you look at it closely, there is another one a few lines below. I’m going with Geo. and the 4. Good Luck Cheryl

  11. I think your Mary Tobin’s age is 13.

    Europeans often write the “1” with an upstroke followed by a downstroke. This age jibes with her having no profession.

    Good luck!

  12. Juliana,
    I’d go with a 4 for the unknown numbers. It closely resembles an h, does not resemble the other definitive 4s on the page, but in comparing all the unknown numbers, they all appear to end on a downstroke, not a loop like a 6. I used to write 4s with a strong L and then a smaller l, so this looks to me like it’s much the same style, it’s just hard to see the bar connecting the two.

  13. W. Tobin 69, Mary 63, Jno 23, Peter 16. Going with 6 for the number that looks more like an h. There are two 24 on the page. Both of them have the base of the 2 connected to the top of the 4. There is a 26, where the 6 looks like an h, but the 2 does not connect to the top. This number 6 (the number that looks like an h) does not appear to be a four because of the above so six is the most likely.

  14. I’m jumping in with no. 13 comment above from Cheryl dated 9/17: it seems impossible to have three persons on the page with the unlikely name of “Jno”. Because this handwriting is similar to old German script in some ways, (where an internal lower case “e” is often seen as an indeterminiate ridge or lump), I too feel sure that all of those “Jno” names on the list are actually “Geo.” ( The period indicating it’s an abbreviated name is visible).

    Re Mary’s age, I’m in the camp of those who read it as 43. The other ages involving a four (on this page) show four connected to the first number by a stroke. Here the four is the lead number, and thus has a bolder initial downstroke.

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