Using Exact Searches

by Juliana Smith 

As I mentioned in my scribblings on the blog Monday night, the Ranked and Exact Search combined make a powerful team of tools. That said, I’m still a little partial and I favor the Exact Search. It’s like an old faithful friend and has found many an ancestor for me! I think that I like it so much because with the advanced search fields, you can manipulate your searches to effectively focus your search. Here are some tips I’ve found useful in using the Exact Search.

Be Direct
Global searches are a good shortcut, but sometimes it pays to go directly to the database of interest. The databases at, particularly the larger ones, often have customized search boxes that are tailored specifically for that database. For example, the search box for passenger lists will have fields for information that is typically found on that record (i.e., name, birth year, gender, ports of departure and arrival, place of origin, ship name, estimated arrival year, and keyword). The same applies to census, vital records, etc. They are customized to best search the information within. If you’re familiar with what databases are available for a particular location, you can find a complete list through the site’s main search page by selecting your area of interest from the maps in the lower left corner.

Less is More
In contrast with the Ranked Search, where you want to add as much information as possible, with the Exact Search, often you’re better off entering less search criteria. If you’re getting too many results, rotate in various combinations of information until you get the desired results.

Sometimes it helps to consider the fields that are your options. Which is more likely to be misunderstood, the name of the state they are from or a surname? Try searching without the surname and include other pieces of information instead. Use a given name, approximate age, and place of birth, rather than trying to figure out how the enumerator mangled your ancestor’s foreign-sounding surname.

Look at Some Samples
Explore the database and look at how information is listed for other people. For English-born people, did they consistently list the place of birth as England or was it sometimes Great Britain? If you are entering that as part of your search criteria, you’ll want to know. How are other fields formatted? With the 1880 index, there is a quirk for the New York metropolitan area. If you’re searching for someone in Brooklyn, you don’t want to use Kings in the county field, even though it is the county. The location for that area is designated as “Kings (Brooklyn), New York City-Greater, NY.” This affects the search. You should enter “Kings” in the Township, rather than the county box, because “New York City-Greater” is in the county spot. It’s the same for Queens, Staten Island (Richmond), and Manhattan, although if you enter “New York” in the county field for Manhattan, it will pick it up because it is part of “New York City-Greater,” but you will also be pulling in the other three areas as well.

Other Features
Experiment with other features as well. Wildcard searches allow you to replace one letter with “?,” or any number of letters up to six with an “*.” However, these will only work if the first three letters of the name are there.

Soundex searches can be performed by selecting Soundex in the “Spelling” box, usually located next to the name fields. This brings up similar sounding names, based on the Soundex code. You can learn more about the Soundex code and convert your surnames at

Although the search engine will automatically convert the names for you when you do a search, it’s a good idea to convert all the variants of your surname as well. Sometimes, one letter will throw off the code and won’t include that name. For example, my great-grandfather’s name was Mekalski, but in many records it is spelled Menkalski. The code for Mekalski is M242, but Menkalski is M524. Because I know this, I know that a Soundex search won’t pull up both variants and I need to do two searches.

Take It One Step Further
Once you’ve made a find, you can take it a step further. If you’ve found your ancestor in a database like the New York Passenger Lists, 1820-50 (7485), you can’t just scroll through the images by ship like most other passenger list databases and see everyone on the manifest. I found one of my ancestors, John Dooner in this database arriving on the Ship Ganges on 10 July 1839. I wanted to browse the manifest for other familiar names. Leaving the name fields blank, I entered Ship Ganges in the ship name field, the year 1839 in both places for the arrival year. I found what appears to be his future wife, Eliza Moran, sailing on the same ship. (Both ages are off a few years, so I want to do a little more checking to make sure it’s not just a coincidence, particularly because Moran is such a common name.)

These are a few of my favorite tips for using the Exact Search. I hope that you’ll contribute yours in the comments section.

Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than seven years and is author 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: mailto:[email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

15 thoughts on “Using Exact Searches

  1. Thank you so much for the information in this weeks journal. I have been ill all winter and have not been able to work much on all of the new things on Ancestry,
    and have been confused on how to use the new things that
    are there now to make my research easier and better.
    This is most helpful. To be able to do this kind of
    research from my home is so awesome. I live five minutes
    away from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City
    and over the years have spent many, many hours there
    doing research. My health for the past two years has
    made it impossile for me to get out in the winter.
    Ancestry is a dream come true for me. I haven’t been
    able to keep up with all of the wonderful new things
    that have been happening on Ancestry. So I thank you
    with all my heart for the teaching that Ancestry
    continues to do. IT REALLY DOSE HELP.
    Thank You so very much.
    Katherine Taylor

  2. Juliana, Are you aware that when someone (me, for example) clicks on the link to on the upper right of this page, they are taken there on your pass word. I have not been to figure out how to get back to my own log-in. Surely I am not the only one to have this problem. Hope you can fix it. Thanks.

  3. Juliana, your tips are very helpful but not very useful when the search functions on various collections (e.g. Historical Newspapers) are completely disabled! I have been waiting for that particular database to become searchable again (after an update) for more than two weeks — and no word from as to when we subscribers might be able to use the collection again. Please make our disatisfaction known to someone able to resolve this problem – and let us hear what’s going on in the newsletter!! Thanks.

  4. Rather than just asking for an exact first name on the index,you can use the soundex function if the name is not found the first time by using just the first name without the last name.

  5. Juliana, a hard learned lesson in searching for an individual with a long surname (especially one that breaks down into two words) is to enter the first half of the surname in the first name category/ the second half in the last name category. Or first or last half in surname category. One would be surprised how oten I have found a person the transcriber or cenus taker labeled first name last, or half the last as the first. For example after spending days and days searching for Andrew Kingsolver and family in a particular census, I finally found him listed as first name “king” last name “solver”. The Andrew was not written on the record at all so no matter how I spelled Kingsolver and no matter which member of the household I used, nothing came up. This lesson though frustrating was a blessing that has produced wonderful results in other difficult searches. Thanks, Jean

  6. Your tip regarding alternate spellings that don’t have the same Soundex code was right on target. Transcription errors of cursive “le” as “b” have resulted in the variation of my surname of Danley to Danby. I found my great-grandfather in the 1850 Census and the roster of his Civil War regimental roster using the latter spelling. His three oldest sons were also in the same unit under the same spelling. A copy of his pension file confirmed that he was in that regiment and contained a deposition wherein he stated that he had three sons in the same unit. Without considering the alternate spelling I would probably have missed them.

  7. Julia,

    May I ssuggest that,in a future article, you go into the ways to input queries for Brooklyn, NY as a follow up to your comments on the 1880 census.

    Also how to input your own data in Famliy Tree Maker so the Web Se arches Research searches back to Ancestry are compatible with the data in Ancestry.

    Does this quirk in the 1880 Census mean that it is impossible to enter the data in FTM so the FTM seraches will show all variations? Do I have to change the places datum to show each variation one at a time and search search each one? Can’t the Ancestry search program be changed to search on all possilbe varianfor each search on the five boroughs?
    ts incldudding adding a special “New York, NY” and a “New York City-Greater” for Kings County?

    If sommeone lived in New Lots in Brooklyn how would you normally input this? New Lots, Brooklyn, Kings, NY?
    New Lots, Kings, NY
    Brooklyn, Kings, NY, etc.

  8. I have found one glitch with the exact search. I used the immigration search and knew the ship name and date. I was trying to find the record. No luck. Well, it turns out that if you put the ship name in at the immigration records search, it doesn’t work. If I then went to the specific database, the search found the record.

    I sent an inquiry to tech support but didn’t really get an answer. My suggestion was to remove the field from the immigration search page since it doesn’t work correctly from that page.

    I don’t know if this is the case with the other databases, but I am now a bit leery when I put in extra fields in that the search isn’t using them correctly, and thus restricting what it will return.

  9. Would someone please explain this “idquo, requo, proquo” business. I trust I’m not the only one that is confused. Carolyn

  10. I believe this has more usable information than any article I have read and I get all the Newsletters. Thank you so much. I have printed it and it will go in the general information section of my miscellaneous book. All highlighted in yellow.

    Thanks again.

  11. One improvement I would like to see in all searches is to make the criteria “sticky”. Example, I do a global search for John Smith in MA. 5 hits in the 1880 census, but not the one I want. So I scroll down to widen the search, say Smi* instead of Smith. but the state drop down has been reset to All, so you get 1500 hits and have to go back and reset to MA. IMO the state selection should be “sticky” and not change until I change it.

  12. Earlier this year I did an extensive search of all Newpapers for several variations of a family name. It took a long time but was very rewarding. Now I see the collection has doubled–is there a way to repeat the search for only the new entries? I’d hate to have to go through all of the mismatches again.

  13. Even with a soundex search if the surname is omitted a slightly different first name will bring up different results–the list for “Blanch ____” will be different than the list for “Blanche ___”. Sometimes the given and middle names will be inverted decade to decade, or initials used, so Nathaniel Truman Shaw becomes NT Shaw, Nathaniel T Shaw and N Truman Shaw. Sometimes the only answer is to search leaving the name out altogether, specifying the location and birth range +/- 2 yrs, and then scan the list of names that pops up, hoping to see something mangled, but familiar. While you are sulking about having to look at 300 or more names, recall that there was a time the entire handwritten census for that location would need to be searched page by page, and feel fortunate to have this wonderful, albeit sometimes imperfect index. If this doesn’t work, try the same procedure with another family member–I have occasionally found names that did not make it from the census page into the index at all.

  14. I second the motion on Diana Nelson’s suggestion regarding making the search fields “sticky”. Also in the same vein, I noticed a few month’s back with the update that on a search form when putting in the country the state box opens, but the cursor lands instead in the age range box, and you must go back up to select the state. It is a small thing, but annoying, and the search form did not work that way in the past. It is much quicker to be able to tab through the fields and select the state and locality as you go.

  15. I love, I am new at working on the Exact Search and all of the above comments are helping me to understand more on how to use this.
    Jean Linhart

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