In past articles I have discussed the different online genealogy indexes and how they can help with your research. These online indexes are valuable tools for finding information about our ancestors. However, they might sometimes be frustrating to use because of the difficulties in searching the indexes.
If you have had problems finding your ancestors in online indexes, apply these nine strategies before giving up your search:
1. Begin by entering a minimum amount of information. The amount of information to use will depend on the name that is being searched. The surname and first name are the basic information used in most searches. If the name is a common one like Smith, you will probably want to add additional identifying information, such as state and time period, right from the start so that you don't get thousands of results. If you still get too many results, add information one piece at a time until there are fewer matches. If the name is unusual or not very common, less information is needed for a reasonable amount of results.
2. Look for different spellings of the name. This applies to both surname and given names. And it doesn't matter if your family always spelled the name a certain way. The census enumerator, county clerk or indexer did not know that and may have spelled it the way it sounded or the way it looked on the record. For instance, Smith might be spelled Smit, Smithe, Smyth, Smythe or a number of other ways. I find the "Phonetic Substitutes" and "Frequently Misread Letters" lists to be very helpful with this problem. They can be found on pages 54 and 55 of the book Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records by Loretto Szucs and Matthew Wright.
3. Use the Soundex option if it is available. When I searched for John Potter in the 1930 U.S. Census for Campbell County, Kentucky, there were 13 hits, but none were my John Potter. When I repeated the search using the Soundex option, I found a match. John Potter was indexed as John Patter.
4. Enter the given name as the surname and/or the surname as the given name. The person recording the record or the indexer might have mixed them up. This happens often when the surname is one that can also be used as a given name. James, John, and Michael all fall into this category, but this strategy may also be applied even when the name is not interchangeable.
5. Use quotation marks around the name. This makes the search engine treat the name as an exact phrase. If "Susan Johnson" is entered, the results will include only the occurrences when Susan and Johnson appear together.
6. Enter the first name without a surname. This usually works well when the surname can be spelled a lot of different ways or is easily misspelled. If the database is an every name index, then use a family member with an unusual name. I was looking for Charles Warren in New York City who had moved there from New Hampshire. The results were all negative. Charles had a son named Harry. I did a search for Harry, born New Hampshire. There were 50 matches, Harry Wanson being one of them. The surname Warren was misinterpreted as Wanson and was the family I was trying to find.
7. Do a wild card search. If searching without a surname brings up too many results, try using the first three letters of the surname with an asterisk (*). This technique can also be used for given names. A name I research is Elizabeth Hagmeier. Both names are frequently misspelled and misinterpreted. When searching, I usually get good results by using "Eli*" and "Hag*"as my criteria. The types of wildcard searches allowed varies by Web site, so be sure to check the help section.
8. Select a specific database rather than using the general search. This is one of those mysteries that I don't understand, but a general search does not always bring up all the results. For instance, if you are looking for a person who should be listed in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), but the entry does not come up in the results, click the SSDI database title and perform the search again. Many times the results will be different.
9. Search by place of residence, age, year of birth, and birthplace. In my previous Warren example, the place of birth was a key factor in finding the correct entry. When you cannot find a match but are fairly certain that a person resided in a particular place, search using the year of birth and birthplace. This also is a good strategy for finding family and friends living in close proximity. For instance, Lyman Webster migrated to Turner County, South Dakota from New Hampshire. If a search is done for all persons born in New Hampshire living in Turner County, possible family and associates for Lyman may be found.
Today, we have many more tools at our disposal to help in our genealogy research. It is important to know how to use these tools to our fullest advantage.