Begin with Advanced Search
Advanced search at Ancestry.com provides users with many options for more effective searching, and should always be your starting point for any search. The Advanced Search form can be accessed directly through the home page at Ancestry.com by clicking on "Advanced Search" next to the "Search" button. Once there, be sure to bookmark for one click access!
Narrow by Locality
To narrow your search results it is often most useful to begin with a surname and a locality. This will not filter out all search results which do not correlate to the specific locality, however. For example, a database which covers multiple locations in addition to the one you entered may still present all results for that surname from each location represented in the database. Example: A search for CRISP in NORTH CAROLINA will provide plenty of NC-specific results for birth, marriage, and death records (because these databases are specific to NC), while most of the search results under military records aren't NC-specific (i.e. include CRISPs from Massachusetts) because the databases themselves aren't NC-specific. This search, while obviously not perfect, still helps to weed out a lot of extraneous data.
An Alternative Locality Search
An alternative to locality search is to use the keyword search option to narrow results to a specific-locality. Entering NORTH CAROLINA as a keyword in my CRISP search means that the military records which appear are only ones that mention "North Carolina" in proximity with the surname CRISP. The drawbacks to this search technique are that you will have to search on all variations of the locality (i.e. NC, N.C., etc.) and that you then run the risk of eliminating a possible hit in cases where the locality name has been misspelled or not even included in a specific database. You'll find this search to be most helpful in cases where you have a very common surname and/or a very populous locality.
Refine Your Search
When searching a database, I usually begin by using only the surname and locality. After I look at the search results, I then check the promising databases individually. If the search results are still very wide, I next scroll down to the bottom of the page and use the "Refine Your Search" box which will include specific fields you can use to further narrow your search in that specific database. Some will allow you to refine by date or county, while others may only allow you to use a keyword to narrow your search. Use these fields to zero in by county name, date, parent's names, or any other fields that you see included and for which you have information.
Many of the databases at Ancestry.com allow for Soundex searches, so be sure to take advantage of this feature in the Advanced Search template. This feature helps you find names which "sound like" your surname, and will hopefully help you to turn up results for some of the misspelled, mistyped names which are sure to exist in the databases.
Sometimes Manual is Better
While soundex search can be extrememly helpful, for the best results it should always be used in combination with a manual search for common surname misspellings. For example, a soundex search for OWENS (soundex code 520) will not turn up results for the singular OWEN (soundex code 500) because they don't share the same soundex code.
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