Certain tips, however, have stood the test of time particularly well. In one form or another, from one expert to the next, the 10 themes outlined here have recurred across our issues. They’re strategies that address eternal genealogical challenges—the “brick walls” that readers ran up against in 2000 and will run up against in 2010. If you’ve learned nothing else from the past 10 years of Family Tree Magazine, you must remember this …
2. Rev your search engines.
Back in February 2004, contributing editor Nancy Hendrickson walked readers through search-engine math:
- Enclose search terms in quotation marks when you want to find an exact phrase.
- Use the plus sign (+) or and when you want the search
- engine to look for multiple words or terms.
- The minus sign tells a search engine to exclude a specific word. (For example, if your ancestor’s surname is a common word, such as Bush: “bush -rose.”)
More recently, in January 2009, publisher/editorial director Allison Stacy packed more hints into “Your Guide to Google”:
- Use the operator or to expand your search to nicknames and spelling variations.
- Google won’t accept near to find words close together, but you can fake it with a full-word wildcard (*). In name searches, the asterisk can substitute for a middle name or initial: “William * Wigglesworth”
- Experiment with entering the last name first, first name last, the name with and without the middle name, with nickname, first initial plus last name and so forth.
- Add the unusual name of your ancestor’s spouse or child to narrow results.
In that same issue, I suggested two specific Google search strategies:
- Search for an ancestor’s name combined with an ancestral place, such as “George Clough” Georgia (or be more specific: “George Clough” “Wilkes County” Georgia).
- Google the names of a married couple (or a suspected couple) together, with each name inside quotation marks, such as “William Phillips” “Susannah Williams”
And don’t forget to try all the same tricks in the ever-expanding Google Books.
Sooner or later, every genealogist runs into “the female problem”—the challenge of tracing women in your family tree when their maiden names so often go missing. We tackled the problem way back in April 2001 and most recently in another full-length article in January 2008, where Lisa A. Alzo offered these tips for discovering maiden names:
- Check adjacent cemetery plots, as well as burial records.
- Look for wills and other estate records, which may have been left by widowed, unmarried or divorced women, as well as by a woman’s father, husband or sons.
- Consult death certificates, which often list maiden names.
- Search for recent ancestors using the one-step Social Security Death Index tool, then request the woman’s Social Security number application (SS-5) from the Social Security Administration.
- Hunt for Grandma’s name in deeds or other land records; her relatives could be the buyers or sellers.
- Look for marriage certificates and marriage bonds, usually signed by the bride’s father or brother.
- Investigate naturalization records; until 1922, wives were sometimes listed on the husband’s form.
- Search for women in newspaper obituaries and in the “society pages.”
- Poke around in pension records: Widows filing for military pensions had to submit proof of marriage. The National Archives has pension records for soldiers from 1775 to 1916; HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries) and Footnote (subscription access) have some pensions, too.
5. Strategize to win the name game.
Over the years, we’ve probably offered more advice relating to names than any other topic—because, after all, figuring out your ancestors’ names is the foundation of your family tree. And names can cause you to pull out your hair. In December 2003, Carmack offered these tips for fighting name frustration:
- Make a list of all the different spelling variations of an ancestor’s name.
- Yesterday’s nicknames weren’t always the same as today: Polly for Mary and Sally for Sarah, for instance. Land records, where people were more likely to use formal names, may solve nickname riddles.
- Don’t be thrown by unfamiliar abbreviations, such as “Jno” for Jonathan, “Jas” for James, “Saml” for Samuel or “Xr” or “Xer” for Christopher.
- Your ancestral culture (Italian or Spanish, for example) may have a traditional naming pattern for children that can offer clues about previous generations. Others, as in Scandinavia, use a patronymic system (Ericsdatter, Larsen) rather than permanent surnames.
In October 2004, I added these name-research strategies to the mix:
- Look for last names that have become first or middle names. My ancestor George Oglesby’s middle name was Stovall—which led me to find a whole related family surnamed Stovall.
- Try abbreviations. I might never have found my ancestor Robert Robinson Dickinson if I hadn’t thought to check for “R.R. Dickinson.”
- Remember to search for married names. Sounds obvious, but as fixated as genealogists get about finding maiden names, it’s easy to forget to search for married women under their husbands’ surnames.
We often warn against accepting other people’s online family trees as gospel. But that doesn’t mean the information found in “pedigree databases” such as RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, MyHeritage and FamilySearch’s Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File are useless. In my February 2006 article on so-called pedigree databases, I shared some tips for mining gold from these resources:
- Use pedigree databases to identify ancestral candidates. You can’t look for somebody whose name you don’t know, after all. So search other people’s family trees to see whom they think your missing ancestor was—then set about proving or disproving that hypothesis.
- Weed out people who probably aren’t your ancestor. Torn between two possible ancestors with the same name?
- Pedigree databases can help you pick which one’s likely not yours—because somebody else has convincingly claimed her.
- Connect with kin. Even if your fourth cousin twice removed doesn’t have all the answers, by sharing data you might solve some mysteries together. Use family tree databases to find others researching the same ancestral lines. (You might even help correct their errors.)
- Seek out sources and take note of notes. Sometimes you can find real facts in others’ family trees—in the sources they cite and their accompanying notes, which often contain transcriptions of wills and other original records. You’ll always want to double-check for accuracy, of course.
Of course, the FHL is more than just the library in Utah, and you don’t have to go there in person (though it’s an experience we highly recommend). As we’ve pointed out in countless articles over the years, you can rent FHL microfilm and access its electronic resources at a branch Family History Center near you. The key to unlocking those records is the FHL catalog. Crume outlined its search options in March 2009, offering the following tips:
- Enter a town, county state or country in the place search to see books and records for that location.
- Type a last name in the surname search to find published and unpublished family histories.
- Use the keyword search to find a word anywhere in the catalog listing.
To order a film you want (printed books don’t circulate), simply take the catalog description to your local center.
Besides the catalog, the FamilySearch website has helpful how-to aids—research outlines, as well as foreign-language word lists and letter-writing guides—and numerous databases to search.
Hendrickson’s assistance doesn’t stop there: “Sometimes, if members know you’re researching a specific surname, they’ll contact you when information surfaces. One long-distance member of the Lucas County, Iowa,
9. Become a genealogical geographer.
The same article that advised using high-tech tools to create a timeline had this similar tip about putting your ancestors
10. Remember to look in the library.
We explored university libraries in October 2001; rated the top 10 public libraries in our October 2002 issue; covered state libraries, archives and historical societies in August 2003; and honored stellar libraries of all stripes in July 2008.
- Check out the online catalog by searching on the word genealogy. (But don’t use this general term when actually searching for specific titles.) Do the results include only books, or also periodicals and microfilm? How old are the copyright dates for the books listed?
- Approach your search of the catalog as you would a search on the Internet: Be specific.
- If you get too many results, refine your search using a surname or a county.
- Don’t forget interlibrary loan, which enables you to request books from far-flung libraries, including the Library of Congress, through your local library.
Your local library also might connect you with expensive online genealogy services—for free. As Maureen A. Taylor pointed out in June 2005, some libraries subscribe to collections such as HeritageQuest Online, Sanborn fire-insurance maps, historical newspapers and a special library version of Ancestry.com. You might not even have to leave home to tap these services; some libraries let you log in remotely via the Internet, simply by typing in your library card number.
From the January 2010 Family Tree Magazine