Can’t Find Your Ancestor? 6 Tips for More Effective Genealogy Searches

There are few things more frustrating or discouraging than spending days, weeks or even years looking for a specific detail about an ancestor and coming up with nothing. And while it is certainly possible that what you are looking for simply does not exist, it’s also possible that a few changes to the way you search may turn up surprising results.

Whether you’re using a huge family history resource like FamilySearch or Ancestry, or digging around on smaller research sites, here are 6 tips that have helped us locate records.

1. Search Databases Individually

While it is certainly convenient that the large sites allow you to search all of their records at one time, it may not be the best way to find what you’re looking for. Searching every database on a site at one time means that a massive amount of records must be sorted through and presented to you to choose from. That means that relevant results can easily get lost in the mix.

On most large research sites, such as FamilySearch or Ancestry, the easiest way to search specific collections is to type in your search and then use the left sidebar to filter the results by type, location, or date. This will drastically narrow your results and help you turn up the details you need. Some sites make it easy to find individual databases and search those specifically as well. Take full advantage of these options because you might be surprised what details get lost in the mix when searching too broadly.

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2. Focus on One Piece of Information at a Time

This advice may seem obvious, but it can easily be forgotten in the excitement of the hunt–and in the hopes that casting a wide net will reveal unknown facts and hidden details. Certainly, searching for every possible detail about your ancestor to see what comes up can be fun and beneficial–but when you’re stuck and feeling like your search is fruitless, zeroing in one single chunk of data can clear the way.

To find results more effectively, decide on one piece of information that you want to know–such as a birth date or the cemetery of burial. Now, write down all of the details that may help you locate that data–what do you already know? Who might have what you need? Lay these details out clearly in a notepad. Once you have the facts you need to help you written out clearly, start your search for the one fact you have chosen to look for.

Do not get sidetracked. Save any other interesting information that you may turn up for later, and keep working on the one piece of information only. If the records you are looking through turn up nothing, tweak your search again and again until you are satisfied that you have explored every angle.

Remember to think creatively, especially concerning the spelling of names or dates of events. If you still have not found what you are looking for, try another database, there are many free ones–but stay focused on the goal and don’t give up.

It helps to keep a clear list of specific facts you are in need of and rotate through them to avoid burn out–but when you pick one on your list to search for, stick to it for as long as you can to increase the chances of finding what you need. Focus = Reward

I cannot tell you how many times using tips one and two together have helped me uncover information I had almost given up on finding.

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3. Use Boolean Searches

This sounds complicated, but it is not, and it is very effective. It is a simple method for increasing the relevancy of results in just about any database by using words or symbols to refine your request (ie AND, OR or NOT). The Colorado State University has a wonderful, fast tutorial on how you can use boolean searches to help you become a better researcher. I have especially found that the NOT and OR operators can be useful in genealogy research.

Example: Mary Sweft OR Swaft born 1847 NOT Swift

Here is our guide for making the most of Google searches using their special operators.

4. Try Wildcards

I won’t even try to explain this here since Bob Vornlocker as already done such a great job of it on Family History Daily in his article How Wildcard Searches Can Uncover Ancestors. I suggest reading it for some wonderful suggestions.

5. Search Many Databases

As mentioned above, there are many, many wonderful free genealogy resources available online now. And the list grows every day. Many have records only found on their site. We just compiled a collection of 50 free genealogy sites that we really love, and that is only the beginning of what you can find online. It can be easy to limit yourself to your favorite resources–but leaving your comfort zone and exploring new sites may open doors you never even new existed.

6. Go Offline

If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to search offline for the records you need. This may mean visiting your local library’s genealogy or history reading room, a nearby historical society or a Family Search Center where you will have access to billions of records you simply cannot get ahold of online. Most of these establishments have smart and helpful volunteers that are eager to help you uncover you family’s story.

In some cases, uncovering data may be as simple as ordering a print copy of a record that has not yet been digitized. Most states and counties make this a pretty painless process by placing their indexes available online–often with a convenient ordering system. The prices for some records are very reasonable. A recent search on the Minnesota Historical Society turned up a record with details I had been hunting for for years–$9 and a week later and I had the record in my hands.

This article is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ideas for breaking down bricks walls and uncovering “missing” family history data. Use what you can and don’t be afraid to mix up your research routine or ask for help from an expert when you need it. You may not always find exactly what you are looking for, but there is a good likelihood you will uncover something you can use. You might also enjoy taking a genealogy research course to learn even more advanced strategies and fun ways to find your ancestors online.

We’d love to hear your tips for better genealogy searches.

By Melanie Mayo – Editor, Family History Daily

Originally published Feb 2015

Featured Image: “African American woman, half-length portrait, facing right” 1899 or 1900, Library of Congress

12 thoughts on “Can’t Find Your Ancestor? 6 Tips for More Effective Genealogy Searches”

  1. I like how you suggested searching databases individually. I have been looking for my ancestors and wondering about my family history. Thanks for the tips on more effective genealogy searches.

  2. Ann Elizabeth Wilder

    I often feel that if American Ancestors (NEHGS) does not have much info on Thomas Wyelder-Wilder then those experts have check it all and there is nothing. Is this a fallacious assumption?

  3. My trouble is trying to find my grandmothers mother Mary Angeline Lawrence in Arkansas in the early 1900s. I’ve looked everywhere and nothing. Please help me.

  4. I’m having a really hard time because family search doesn’t have anything on my son’s paternal side neither does any other website. Ancestry has the most but not what I’m looking for. His grandfather’s real father’s name. I don’t know how to go about finding it. According to family his middle name was actually his real last name. I’ve searched and searched and nothing.

  5. Two things:

    1) A lot of people–PARTICULARLY JEWS–change their names when they move to a new country to avoid sounding “foreign”. Jews in particular also do it to avoid discrimination and antisemitism.

    2) Particularly in previous generations, it was very common for people who knew they had Jewish ancestry to not mention it to children and if it was brought up even to deny such ancestry.

  6. I had a really hard time with my relative named awalt. im not jewish, but i went to jewishgenweb and found All of them. So happy!

  7. I spent about SEVEN YEARS looking for my mother’s family in the 1930 U.S. Census for New York City. I tried wildcards, different spellings, etc. The surname was Erenzo but I knew an Italian cursive E looked like an American cursive G, so I also looked for Grenzo and Grenza, with no luck.

    Then one day I realized … how many families would there be with a daughter named Josephine, a son named Vincent, and a mother named SANTELLA? I looked without a surname and only with those first names and found it immediately! It turned out they had the name as Gorenzo. I had never tried looking TWO initial wrong letters rather than one.

    Unfortunately, that did not work on my father’s side of the family. The names were Joseph, Charles, Anna and Bernard (which was a common name in the 1915-1940 time period), so I got hundreds of results.

  8. I have had success searching newspapers. Even when the subscription is free often I get the name and date of printing of the newspaper and the name of person. Happy hunting.

  9. I found that recently myself, Pam Barton. My father’s family came here from Czechoslovakia in 1906 and they are in almost every city directory after that until they died, yet I couldn’t find them in the 1910 census – just started at 1920. So, I went to the Steve Morse website & entered the address (from the City Directory) and got the Enumeration district & went page by page and found them! Their name is POZDECH and was written by the census person (and indexed) as PAXCLECH. Sometimes it just takes a little more work. Now have to work on that for my McGuire side.

  10. I agree with Pam, so many of my Québécois ancestors somehow have anglicized or terribly mangled spellings of their names by English enumerators not speaking French and Francophone residents not speaking English. -Still beyond me how grandpa Ernest was entered as Airness ! My Italian great-grand-parents, the De Luca where entered as De Luka in the Brooklyn NY census – their neighborhood was primarily Germans and Austrians…now, I can understand how Genoveffa was entered as Genove, but don’t ask me why Antonio was entered as Dona…!

    I’ve also gone paragraph by paragraph for birth/marriage/death records and found 4 siblings of my grand-father that my Mom and aunts didn’t know about.
    I also read the whole paragraph even if the entry is not of my ancestor’s, I found relatives listed as witnesses to birth/marriages/burials – my Italian great grand father was a simple peasant but was often a witness at births & burials so it still gave me a sense of pride knowing he was a trusted, sought-after member of his community and he could write his name!
    Searching surrounding towns/villages or relative’s towns can also uncover some surprises like one couple had their children baptized in one town but there was a 4 year gap between the siblings, I found the “gap” child baptized in the mother’s parent’s town –
    Lastly, going page by page made me find erroneously categorized records like Marriages from 1821-1823 inserted amongst the Births of 1833 (these digitized records were not yet indexed, thus not “searcheable”).

  11. On a lot of the census records I look at I have notice and have found that many of my own records the names are horribly mis-interpeted they don’t show up for the name I’m looking for but if I go page by page I find the family I’m looking for, a J might be an I or S and it really changes the name I know its hard to read some of the hand writings but really ie (John is misspelled Sohn) Sometimes I will have to go thru 50/60 census records and it is time consuming but I have found many of my family doing this. If I know a family was in a area in say 1850 and 1870 they are there again probably the 1860 census was not translated right I don’t know of a way around this I have typed in a first name and age and sometimes something will pop up but I have discovered its easier just to go thru record by record

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