Using Ancestry.com: In Search of History

Juliana's cat, Pearl Jamby Juliana Smith

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I’m thrilled with the way so many of you have embraced the new newsletter and 24/7 blog. I’m in awe of your generosity in sharing your experience and comments with others, and am learning much myself. Beyond the tips that have me chomping on the bit to get back to my own research, the comments I am receiving via email and on the blog are also helping me to better get to know you and your interests.

With the new Ancestry Weekly Journal, we began a section called The Year Was. . . To my delight, this has been one of the most well-received sections of the newsletter. I’ve had my husband, who some of you may recall is recovering from surgery, scouring the Internet looking for tidbits of history to include with each year. (I’ll make a genealogist out of him yet!) Using what he finds, I dive into more collections that I think will help give us a peek into the lives of our ancestors.

Another insight was in the response to last week’s Weekly Planner about writing a biographical sketch. I have so much fun looking for historical background, for both AWJ articles and for my own family history research, that I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the resources available at Ancestry.com that I find helpful, both for the newsletter and for my own research.

Family and Local History Collection

The Family and Local History Collection at Ancestry.com is a huge library of unique materials. Many of the titles in the collection are local history books that have images available. The breadth of the coverage makes this collection an important resource, but it is often overlooked.

One of the difficulties with this collection is actually locating what is available for a particular area of interest. Because of the large number of localized databases included in the collection, it would take a very long time to browse all of them, and while browsing an entire library of historical titles is appealing to me, I think my family would miss me during those years.

There are several ways to attack this collection, so let’s take a look at some of them.

From the Family and Local History Collection Main Search Page

To get there, click on the Search tab and then, in the list of database collections on the right hand side of the page, click on Family & Local Histories. From here you can search for family names, but since not all of our ancestors are included by name, it is sometimes more effective to search by location.  Try entering the name of your ancestor’s city or town, county, or any other feature you hope to find more information about (e.g., church, cemetery, school, etc.).

From this main page you can also browse the titles alphabetically, and the cool part about this browse function is that many parts of the title are used in cataloging the item. For example, the database of History of Northampton, Lehigh, Monroe, Carbon and Schuylkill Counties: containing a brief history of the first settlers, topography of townships, notices of leading events, incidents, and interesting facts in the early history of these counties, with an appendix ….  is can be found under the heading of N, (then No, and Northa) for Northampton, C, (Car, and Carb) for Carbon, etc. for each of the five counties listed in the title, as well as in the longer listing for Pennsylvania.

Since there are also many family history publications included in this database, don’t overlook searching or browsing by name.  Try related family names as well. While your family’s name might not have their own title, a related family might have one that includes information on your ancestor. One example can be found in the Genealogy of the Beach family of Connecticut: with portions of the genealogies of the allied families of Demmond, Walker, Gooding, and Carpenter.

 From the Advanced Search Page

Another way to dive into these databases would be to search through the more advanced features of the main Ancestry.com search page and selecting Family and Local Histories from the drop down Record Type box, under Advanced Options, and using any of the above criteria that you think might be helpful.

You can also navigate through the databases geographically by state, by selecting a state of interest from the map in the lower left of the search page and then scrolling down to the Family and Local History section and selecting the option to view all of the F&LH databases for that state (ex: view all 208 Texas Family & Local Histories).

More Tips

  • Don’t just rely on searches and an index to find your ancestor. As I searched for one of my husband’s ancestors with a rather unusual name, I was unable to find him by either entering the name in the search box, or by going right to a local history and browsing the biographical index for that database. However, in locating a related name in the index, I went to that page, only to find the other ancestor’s name misspelled in a listing of residents from the area in military service. Spend some time browsing the contents of these books online.
  • Don’t limit yourself. Browse and search for a wide variety of topics, and read through the text of histories of interest. You can even gain helpful insights by reading the local histories of other nearby locations. The insights you can gain through these local histories will earn you a much better understanding of what life was like for our ancestors. Dive in and I’ll bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than seven years and is compiler of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

8 thoughts on “Using Ancestry.com: In Search of History

  1. Do you think you will add a feature to this blog to ask questions that have little or nothing to do with what’s posted? I am researching my uncles ww2 records etc to honor our veterans in my Family History, but have come accross lots of questions for everything I find. For instance, how can someone start out in one army division but when they ‘separate’ they are now in a totally different division? I have documentation for this but not how it happened.That makes it hard for family historians like me, to put together since we may not have any knowledge of military procedures.I try to track what both divisions did in ww2 just “in case”. Also, where does one find what the codes in the ‘reason for discharge’ mean? Perhaps you can have an ‘expert’ write in future Journals, about this subject? Thanks, my two cents.

  2. When I find a useful local or family history database I save the main search page to my “genealogy/places/[appropriate state or province]” folder in my browser favorites so it is easy to refer back to for other surname searches in the same area that will likely come up later as research progresses. If you have not specified on your computer to be automatically logged in when going to Ancestry.com, be sure to log in before choosing the favorite later. I also dump all the references I find into a Word file, starting each section with the source info which can be found at the bottom of the search page under “Description” and “Source Information”. Images can be copied by selecting “print image” and then sliding the cursor over the image right to left until it turns blue, hitting [ctrl c], putting the cursor into the Word doc and then hitting [ctrl v]. This puts all your search hits for one person or surname/area into one document for study and notations, together with the citation info that will be needed later. Make sure to leave wide margins, as you will be writing things like “found on 1840 census of….” or “married_____” as you use the document printout. (Save often; Word is a resource hog and may crash periodically doing this.)

  3. I laboriously slogged through pages of Atchison Globe in ancestry.com historical newspaper section for info on a Keats relative. Mary A. Keats was alive for the 1900 census but nowhere to be found on 1910 census. Low and behold in an issue dated Jan.24,1947 titled Fourty Years Ago, I found the death of Mary A. Keats at her son’s home. No one from sources at Utah (paid for little if any information), Atchison,Ks Geneology Society ( Paid 15 dollars for good information) could find her death. I still don’t have basic info ie. her maiden name, where in Virginia she was born, nor where her husband James E. Keats was born in England. However one more key has been located to the puzzle. SO do not discount that tenaceous look and relook at available resouces. Thank you for your article.

  4. While watching a History Channel show about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, I started wondering about the Corleys that were living in San Francisco. Using Ancestry I searched for Corleys using California as part of the search criteria. I found 12 Corleys listed as living in San Francisco on the 1900 Census. And there were 5 at the time of the 1910 Census. It will take further research to determine what happened to the “missing” 7.

    I gathered from the show that there is not an accurate death count nor a list of those that died. Today, 18 April 2006, is the 100th Anniversary of the earthquake.

  5. This letter comes to my computer with ‘blanks’ where pictures should be. Any way to get the pictures transmitted? RPP

  6. For Suzanne – about WWII information. I had the same problem only with WWI information. I have a daughter and two grandson’s who are military, and all three said to visit with a Recruiter of the branch of service you are interested in. My daughter also suggested talking with some of the people from your local VFW. (Vetran’s of Foreign Wars) I hope this helps a little. Good Luck.

  7. Your column is always interesting. I print off special ones, and then it is a challenge how to file them. I also would appreciate it if you would indicate which sources one has to have a paid subscription. Thanks. Liz

  8. Enjoyed your article. As you wrote, there are so many hints to follow where do we find the time. Enjoyed the Journal too. JP

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