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Tips for Finding Your Ancestors in Genealogy Databases

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How many of you have ancestors that you just can't find in a census, newspaper, or other online database when you just know they must be there? Before you assume they were just missed somehow, try these tips for locating stubborn ancestors in a variety of online databases.

1. Don't Depend on Soundex

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While the soundex search option, when available, is a great way to pick up alternate spellings, it may not get them all. OWENS (O520) and OWEN (O500), for example, are commonly seen variations of the same surname - yet they have different soundex codes. Therefore, a search for OWENS will not pick up OWEN, and vice-versa. Start with soundex, but if that doesn't work, try your own spelling variations and/or wildcard to expand your search.

2. Search Surname Variants

Misspellings, variant forms, incorrect transcriptions and a host of other reasons may explain why you can't find your ancestor under his or her expected surname. The German surname Heyer, for example, may be found spelled as Hyer, Hier, Hire, Hires and Heirs. Surname mailing lists at RootsWeb and DNA surname projects at FamilyTreeDNA often list alternate surnames, or you can create your own list with the help of these 10 Tips for Finding Alternate Surname Spellings and Variations.

3. Use Nicknames and Initials

First names, or given names, are also candidates for variation. Your grandmother Elizabeth Rose Wright may also appear in records as Liz, Lizzie, Lisa, Beth, Eliza, Betty, Bessie, or Rose. You might also find her listed by her initial, as in E. Wright or E. R. Right. Women may even be listed as Mrs. Wright.

4. Consider Alternate Surnames

The name that your family uses today may not be the same one used by your ancestors. Many immigrants may have "Americanized" or otherwise changed their name to make it easier to spell or pronounce, to escape religious or ethnic persecution, or just to make a fresh start. My maiden name of Thomas, used to be Toman when my Polish ancestors first arrived in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. Alternate surnames may include anything from simple spelling changes, to a completely new surname based on the translation of the original name (e.g. Schneider to Taylor and Zimmerman to Carpenter).

5. Swap the First and Last Names

My husband's first name, Albrecht, is often mistaken as his last name, but this can happen to individuals with common names as well. Whether the mistake was made on the original record or during the indexing process, it is not unusual to find an individual's last name entered as their first name and vice-versa. Try entering the surname in the first name field, or the given name in the surname field.

6. Use Wildcard Search

Check the "advanced search" or database instructions to see if the genealogy database you are searching allows wildcard search. Ancestry.com, for example, offers several wildcard search options for its many databases. This can be helpful for locating variant surnames (e.g. owen* will return results for both Owen and Owens) as well as variant given names (e.g. dem* to return Dempsey, Demsey, Demprey, Demdrey, etc.) and locations (e.g. gloucester* will return results for both Gloucester and Glouchestershire which are interchangeably used for the England county).

7. Combine Those Search Fields

When you can't find your ancestor by any combination of first and last name, then try leaving off the name entirely if the search feature will allow it. Use a combination of location, sex, approximate age and other fields to help narrow down the search. For recent census records I will often have luck with a combination of the first name of an individual, plus the first name of a parent or spouse.

8. Search the Bare Minimum

Sometimes including something as simple as a birth place will eliminate your ancestors from the search results. World War I Draft Cards are an excellent example of this - while the first two registrations asked for the birth place, the third did not, meaning that including a place of birth in your WWI Draft Card database search may exclude anyone from that third registration. Blanks are also commonly found in census records. Therefore, when your regular searches don't work, start eliminating search criteria one by one. It may take plowing through every male in the county of the right age to find your ancestor (searching by sex and age only), but this is better than never finding him at all!

9. Search for Family Members

Don't forget about the rest of the family! Your ancestor's first name may have been hard to spell, or hard for the transcriber to read, but her brother's may have been a bit easier. For records such as census records you can even try searching for their neighbors and then browse through a few pages in either direction to hopefully find your ancestor.

10. Search by Database

Many larger genealogy sites offer a global site search which makes it easy to search for your ancestor across multiple databases. The trouble with this is that the global search form doesn't always give you the specific search fields that best apply to each individual database. If you're trying to locate your great-grandfather in the 1930 census, then search the 1930 census directly, or if you're hoping to find his WWI draft card, the search that database separately as well.

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