Ancestry.com Quick Guide

Ancestry.com Quick Guide

Quick tips and hints for how to search Ancestry.com. This article includes a short Genealogy How-To Video on how to narrow search results using Ancestry.com filters.

Membership Options

Level    Benefits    Cost
Free basic Build a family tree, access free collections free (registration required)
US Discovery Build a family tree, access all US records on Ancestry.com $19 per month or $99 for six months
World Explorer Build a family tree, access all US and international records on Ancestry.com $34.99 per month or $149 for six months
World Explorer Plus Build a family tree, access all records on Ancestry.com, Fold3.com and Newspapers.com $44.99 per month or $199 for six months
 

Overview

Ancestry.com, the largest commercial genealogy website, boasts a huge collection of more than 14 billion records, including US, UK and Canadian censuses; birth, marriage, death, military and immigration records; digitized books and city directories; and more than 60 million member-contributed family trees. The site keeps adding important new collections from around the world, and its search capabilities continually grow more sophisticated.
 
 

Search strategies
These four tips will help you search Ancestry.com efficiently—and successfully.

Use search filters to broaden or narrow your search. Names spelled in unexpected ways and transcription errors can confound your best search efforts. And sometimes you won’t know the person’s exact years and places of birth and death. That’s why Ancestry.com by default finds matches that don’t necessarily fit all your search criteria exactly. But you can weed out some irrelevant results by using filters built into the search form. These filters let you specify how closely the records in your search results must match your search terms.
Ancestry.com is updating the appearance of its search forms to make them easier to use. The updated version is shown below (click the image to see a larger image in a new window), but you currently have the option to return to the old form.

 
 
Both offer the same search options and filters (if you don’t see them, click Show More Options). When you fill out the name of the person or any family members, the place an event occurred, or the date an event occurred, an Exact checkbox will appear below the field you typed in. Click the Exact checkbox and a menu of additional filter options, listed in order from narrow to broad, will pop up:
  • First name: Exact, Exact and Sounds-like, Exact and Similar meanings/spellings, and Exact and Initials instead of names.
  • Last name: Exact, Exact and Sounds-like, Exact and Similar meanings/spellings, and Exact and Soundex
  • Event date (the option to add a year of birth, marriage, death or another event will appear once you click on the event you want to add): Exact to this year, or this year plus/minus one, two, five or 10 years
  • Location: Exact to this place, the county where the place is located, the county and adjacent counties, the state where the place is located, the state and adjacent states, or the country 
You also can restrict the type of records in your results, such as only US or Canadian records, only historical records, or everything but family trees, by using the search form’s Collection Focus options. Use sliders to BROADEN OR NARROW your results. You could go back to the search form to change your filter options, or use the “sliders” to the left of your search results. The sliders correspond to the filters on the search form. For example, the given name slider has five positions: broad; exact, similar, sounds like and initials; exact, sounds like and similar; exact and similar; and exact. Event date sliders have six positions: broad; +/- 10 years; +/- 5 years; +/- 2 years; +/- 1 year and exact. Location sliders have six positions: broad; country; state and adjacent states; state; county and adjacent counties; and exact.
 
Moving a slider to the left broadens your search and gives you more matches for that term; moving a slider to the right narrows your search and gives you fewer matches. Experiment with different combinations of slider positions and you’ll probably discover many more relevant matches. To edit the terms you typed, click the Edit Search link below the sliders.
 
Search specific record categories and collections. Using the main search form to cover all of Ancestry.com’s records and family trees in one fell swoop is a good way to begin your research on someone. But searching specific record categories and individual databases lets you focus on the most relevant records and use customized search forms. From the Search tab at the top, you can select broad categories, including Census & Voter Lists; Birth, Marriage and Death; Public Member Trees; Military; and Immigration & Travel. If you’re researching an immigrant, for example, select Immigration & Travel for a search form with fields for dates and places of arrival and departure, and country of origin. (Keep in mind that several important categories, including Private Member Trees, Newspapers, and Pictures, aren’t listed under the Search tab. To find these, select Search All Records from the Search tab and choose from the list on the right.)
 
To the right of the search form for a category, you can click a subcategory to search. Subcategories in Immigration & Travel include Passenger Lists, Border Crossings & Passports, and more. You also could click one of the suggested data collections, such as Border Crossings: From Canada to US, 1895-1956.
 
The best way to find a database is to use the Card Catalog, available under the Search tab. You can search the catalog by words in a database title, but the keyword search is best if you don’t know the title of the database you want to use: Searching for the keywords Civil War, for example, brings up any database with Civil War in its title or description. Click on a database title to search it. You also can filter the catalog by collection and location, too. To find out what’s available for Lancaster County, Pa., use the Filter by Location option and select the country USA, the state Pennsylvania and the county Lancaster. The 95 matches include local histories, church records and directories.
 
Search from your Ancestry Member Tree or Family Tree Maker software. If you have an Ancestry Member Tree, when you start filling in the search form with a name, the site will suggest matching names from your Member Trees. Select one, and the search form will fill in automatically with details from your tree, including the first and middle names, maiden and married surnames (both in the Last Name box), years and places of birth, marriage and death, and the names of the parents, spouse and children. The advantage isn’t only speed: Searching with the detail and family connections could result in higher-quality matches. (If none of the suggested names are the person you’re searching for, just finish typing the name and hit Enter.) 

 
Also retry the search with different combinations of criteria, such as without the names of family members, with different places of residence and with different keywords such as his occupation or a military conflict he was in.
 
You also can start a search by first going to your Ancestry Member Tree. Just click on a name and then on Search Records. To search online for someone in your Family Tree Maker file, highlight a name in Tree or Person view, click the Web Search tab and select Ancestry.com, RootsWeb, Google or another search engine. If you find a pertinent record on Ancestry.com, you can merge the facts into your tree. Source information is linked to the fact and, if there’s an associated record image, it’s linked to the source.
 

Power User Tips

  • Search with wildcards. Ancestry.com lets you use a ? to stand in for one letter or a * to stand in for zero to five letters in a name. You can use a wildcard as the first or last character, but not both, and the name must have at least three non-wildcard characters.
  • Get automatic hints. Ancestry.com can automatically search its vast collections of records and family trees for your ancestors. Just keep your family tree in Family Tree Maker software for Windows or Mac <www.familytreemaker.com> or create a free Ancestry Member Tree online. Working in the background, Ancestry.com searches its records and family trees for matches to people in your tree. A waving leaf by a name in your tree indicates a potential match. Just click to view the hint. You can review the record to make sure it pertains to your ancestor and then attach it to your tree.
  • Edit your tree on the go. Use Ancestry.com’s free mobile app for Apple or Android to create and edit your Ancestry Member Tree on your phone or tablet. You can add records you find in Ancestry.com, as well as those uploaded from your device. Changes will automatically sync to all your devices.
  • Find it free. Search the Ancestry.com card catalog on the keyword free, and many of the results will be free databases. You can access almost all of Ancestry.com’s records free from a library that offers Ancestry Library Edition on its computers. Check the website or ask your librarian to see if your library offers this service.
  • Don’t lose access to your records. Anyone can create an Ancestry Member Tree for free and as a paying subscriber, you can attach records from Ancestry to people in your tree. But if you let your subscription lapse, you could be in for an unpleasant surprise: You’ll be able to access your tree and any records uploaded from your computer, but not the records attached to it from Ancestry.com. To avoid this, when you attach a record to someone in your Member Tree, save a copy to your computer with a descriptive name so you can easily find it. You also could use Family Tree Maker software so you’ll have a copy of your family tree on your computer that automatically syncs with your online tree.

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