Admit it. You return again and again to the popular genealogy Web sites – FamilySearch, USGenWeb, RootsWeb and others – looking for clues about your ancestors. If you’re repeating the same searches but not finding much, it’s time to give your technique an overhaul.
We’ve taken a fresh look at seven familiar sites, examined their search options, and even figured out how to use Google <google.com> to probe them more efficiently. So get out of that rut – and finally find your ancestors – with these “hacks” for effectively mining the Internet’s most-frequented family history stops.
HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com>
The first trick to tapping HeritageQuest Online: You have to access it through a subscribing library, either on site or from home via the library’s Web site. If your library offers remote access (see a partial state-by-state list online at <eogen.com/heritagequestonline>), logging in will probably involve entering your library card number.
Once you’re in, you can mine a trove of genealogical data-all US censuses from 1790 to 1930, Revolutionary War pension and land records, 20,000-plus family and local history books, the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) to more than 2 million articles in 6,500 genealogical journals, plus Freedman’s Bank depositor registers. (Note: Genealogy.com <genealogy.com> offers virtually the same census and books collections by subscription. Since individual researchers can use HeritageQuest Online for free, we’re bypassing Genealogy.com search tricks and instead focusing on HeritageQuest.)Each collection has a customized search screen, so use these hints to tailor your queries:
Sift smartly through censuses. Unlike Ancestry.com, HeritageQuest has only head-of-household indexes, even for later enumerations in which every resident was listed by name. It has no indexes for 1830, 1840 and 1850, and only partial indexes for 1880 and 1930 – an important limitation to keep in mind when you search. Unless you’re looking for an uncommon name, use the Advanced Search, which lets you narrow by town, county, age range, gender, race and birthplace (add and subtract parameters to get a manageable number of hits).
Pinpoint books with proximity searches. When you enter multiple words in a Books search field, HeritageQuest automatically looks for hits where they’re within five words of one another. So if you search for dora robertson, your results include hits with middle names (Dora Augusta Robertson) and initials (Dora A. Robertson).
Constructing your own keyword proximity searches – you even can specify how close your terms must be – is a great way to narrow results. For example, say you want to find the last name Robertson within 10 words of the place South Worcester. Just enter robertson near: 10 “south worcester” in the Keywords box. No hits? Experiment with broadening your search terms’ proximity – specify, say, 20 or 25 words apart instead of 10. To find an exact phrase, surround it with quotation marks.
Use wildcards. The Books collection and PERSI both support wildcard searching: You can substitute an asterisk for multiple letters, or a question mark for one. For instance, a search for stan* brings up its on Stanley, Stansbury and Standish, and a search for wil?on produces matches for Wilson and Wilton. One quirk: In PERSI, asterisks work only at the end of your search term. So web* finds Webb and Webster, but you can’t search on we*er.