Six Strategies to Discover More Records About Your Ancestors

By Sunny Jane Morton and Harold Henderson Premium
Congratulations! You’ve completed a thorough search for your ancestor on _____ (insert the name of your favorite genealogy website). You’ve dug for that person with every conceivable nickname, combination of initials and surname spelling. You’ve considered all record hints, explored all major record types, even judiciously climbed others’ online trees.
The problem is, the emerging picture of your ancestor is still far from complete. It’s like a mug shot: close up, cold and limited in what it tells you. You’re hungry for additional records and new details to attach to that person’s profile. Maybe you’re missing a precise birth or death date, you suspect you haven’t found all her children, or you wish you knew what the heck he was doing in the Dakota Territory in 1883. You want more.
So what can you do now?
It’s time to travel down research paths you haven’t tried—and to broaden your search beyond, Family­ or any other single genealogy website. To help you expand your research horizons to encompass new resources, online and off, we’ll ask you six specific ancestral questions that you may have yet to fully address. As you work on answering our queries, you’ll find your portrait of this relative gradually zooming out to include a background, some colorful episodes—maybe even a relative or two you haven’t met yet. So please, answer us these questions:

1. Did your relative have additional spouses or children?

Unknown spouses and children can explain gaps in people’s lives. Female ancestors are most often “lost” this way because they disappear under a surname you don’t recognize. But a man also might’ve had another family you haven’t found. Even if they’re not your blood relatives, tracing them can lead to records about your ancestor.
First, make sure you have found (or looked hard for) your relative in every census during his or her lifetime. The 1910 census, in particular, uses M1 or M2 in the marital status column to indicate a first or second marriage. When you can’t find someone, browse the pages if you know the place. Keep an eye out for household members’ unique names: Jedidiah Smith may appear as JW Smythe, but you may catch on if his wife’s name is Clotilda in multiple censuses. Our Census Workbook in the July/August 2014 Family Tree Magazine can help you get more out of your census research.
Next, look for evidence that a couple stayed together—or didn’t. Death certificates, which exist most reliably after the late 1800s, often mention a surviving spouse. Scrutinize marriage records again, this time looking for your ancestors with other partners. Search for a woman under both her maiden and married surnames. In records of a subsequent marriage, she’d likely have the previous spouse’s surname. Look for divorce records among local court records (find help in our “Untying the Knot” download). Study wills and probate records of both spouses (see more on these in question No. 6). See if they were buried together, keeping in mind that a shared grave isn’t absolute proof of marriage.
It’s not hard to miss children in your ancestral families, especially those who were born and died between federal censuses and before vital records existed. A child born just after the 1880 census could live into his teenage years and die unrecorded before the next extant census in 1900 (remember, the 1890 census was virtually destroyed). Children also might be sent away to school or to live with others, which often happened when one parent died or remarried.
Consult the mother’s listing in the 1900 and 1910 censuses, which asked women how many children they’d had and how many were still living. Also look for missing children with advanced searches on genealogy websites: Leave your search subject’s name blank and fill in the parents’ names (try one or both parents). If you’ve found a parent’s gravestone, search for nearby stones and online memorials for potential children. Then verify these relationships with other records.

2. Did your relative serve in the military (or marry someone who did)? 

First, check your ancestors’ birth dates. People born 20 to 30 years before a war began are the likeliest candidates to have been a soldier or sailor, or to have married one. For the American Revolution, that’s around 1750; for the War of 1812, around 1795; for the Civil War, around 1840; for World War I, around 1890; for World War II, around 1915. Do the math for the conflict of your choice. Then seek evidence that an ancestor served, such as: 
  • graves in military cemeteries or graves bearing service markers 
  • entries in the 1890 US census veterans’ schedule for Union veterans (which survives only for states ranging alphabetically from Kentucky to Wyoming and sometimes also contains entries for Confederate veterans)
  • response to the 1910 census question about survivors of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy
  • listing in the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors index, which links to lists of people in their units and a record of the unit’s activities and locations in the war
  • federal (and sometimes state) records of those awarded military bounty land (see question No. 3)
  • listing in a state adjutant general roster of WWI service members (check and state archive websites)
  • entries in the National Archives’ WWII Army enlistment file
Let your findings point you to military records, online and off. Note that volunteers may have separate records and indexes from those in the Regular Army (as in the War of 1812). Look for enlistment, service, personnel and pension records. When you find your ancestor named in an index, always seek the original record.
The Fold3 subscription website includes full copies of all surviving Revolutionary War pensions and many early Civil War widows’ pensions. These and most other nondigitized Civil War pension records are referenced on index cards that are slightly different in the collections on and Fold3 (check both sites). Pull the application number and, for pensions that were granted, the pension certificate number from the cards. If you can’t visit the National Archives in person to access the pension, consider hiring a professional to retrieve it for you—which may be more cost effective than ordering a copy of the record for $80, plus a per-page fee for files longer than 100 pages.

3. Did your relative get land from the government?

The federal government and several state governments have distributed millions of acres of land over time. The first place to look for related records is the General Land Office (GLO) Records website. This website documents land awards in public-land states—those where the federal government originally owned the land and was responsible for its dispersal. See our lists of public-land and state-land states, where colonial government or other entities were the original landowners.
At GLO, you may learn when an ancestor received land from the federal government; the purchase terms, acreage and location; whether there were co-buyers and more. Veterans’ patents may name the unit in which a soldier served. The site has tools to map out an ancestor’s property and see who claimed neighboring land parcels—which may lead you to relatives.
Additional records of land awards may exist for veterans. Before the Civil War, the federal and some state governments awarded bounty land to veterans as a reward or incentive for service. The standard paper trail would begin with the veteran’s application. Successful applicants received warrants (like coupons) for a specific acreage amount. Warrants could be redeemed at land offices for patents (similar to deeds, except for federal land transactions) to a specific parcel of land and could sometimes be sold to others.
Revolutionary War veterans’ application files for bounty land are indexed on; has images of the records. Fold3 also includes these records with its imaged pension files. Find War of 1812 awards, issued through 1858, on in the collection called U.S. War Bounty Land Warrants, 1789-1858. FamilySearch has an index to the National Archives’ Mexican War pension files; the index cards state whether the person received bounty land.
Certain states and the colonies they came from parceled out their own land. These included the original 13 colonies plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia. Each had unique provisions, procedures and records. If your ancestor was an early arrival in one of these states, look to the state archives for information on accessing and understanding early records.

4. Did your ancestors make the news?

By the mid-to-late 1800s, our everyday relatives began appearing more often in their local newspapers. Prior to that time, you might find occasional mentions of your family in legal or death notices, runaway slave ads, and coverage of crimes and unusual events. But obituaries, social news (such as notes on parties and out-of-town visitors), local business and court happenings, gossip, and more became common as the century progressed. By the 20th century, you’ll often find birth and marriage announcements; recognition of scholars and athletes; and mentions of accidents, illnesses and hospital stays that would be suppressed today in the name of privacy.
Searching for ancestors in old newspapers used to require you to hunt down and browse the pages, hoping a familiar name would catch your eye. That’s still your only option in some times and places, but first try searching digitized newspaper websites. If a newspaper mentioning your family was digitized and if the search engine doesn’t miss it, you’ll save hours. Searching online isn’t perfect for old newsprint: You may find only 60 to 70 percent of what’s there. Increase your odds of success by trying combinations of terms, particularly words that won’t be capitalized, like fireman. (Capitalized words can be more difficult for the search engine to pick up—and yes, that includes names.) That said, also use relatives’ names, hometowns, church names, street addresses and other proper nouns as search terms.

For US ancestors, start your search at the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America, a free resource for nearly 10 million digitized newspaper pages published before 1922., Newspaper Archive and GenealogyBank are excellent resources for those with subscriptions. The latter two may be accessible free through your public library.

You also can search Newspaper Archive if you’re a subscriber to (with a data or PremiumPlus subscriptions) or Each site offers additional newspaper databases, including millions of British and Irish pages with a World subscription. has fewer digitized newspapers, which you can search or browse. Its sister site has many more digitized papers you can view with a separate subscription. doesn’t prioritize newspapers except for its massive obituary index, much of which points to digitized content at subscription site GenealogyBank. If you don’t have a subscription, look for the newspaper on another site or using the offline search strategies below.
Many newspapers aren’t online. When you run out of digitized papers, go back to Chronicling America to find the names of offline papers to research. Search its comprehensive US Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present for titles published in your relative’s county and city that cover the right time period. You also can learn the names of ethnic and foreign-language newspapers. Click on the Chronicling America entries to find libraries that have microfilm, microfiche or original versions. If you can’t visit the holding library, you may be able to borrow film or fiche through interlibrary loan. You also could run a web search for each paper with its name in quotes to see if any digitized or indexed versions pop up.

5. Has anyone written about your family?

We often think of ourselves as lone researchers, out to rescue relatives from obscurity. But it’s possible someone else has already done that and written about your kin. First, search the internet using your favorite web browser. You may discover your ancestors in blog posts, local history and genealogy websites, digitized books and more. Search with several variations of a person’s full name, putting the name in quotations to receive only exact matches. With Google searches, add locations, occupations and institutions. Indicate terms to omit from search results with a minus sign—for example, use -Illinois so Springfield, Ill., results won’t be included among results for Springfield, Ohio. Add a range of years to your search by listing the numbers with two periods between them (no spaces, as in 1812..1868).

Follow up this initial sweep with a more-targeted online search for articles and books. Your search terms will be


similar to the ones you used to search the web, but with added emphasis on places and institutions (schools, businesses, factories, churches and civic groups). These resources might not specifically mention your ancestor’s name, but you may learn helpful historical background and discover old pictures and other source material. Searches of the following databases may lead to relevant articles from academic journals and other sources. When they do, mine the footnotes, endnotes and/or bibliography for additional sources:
  • The Periodical Source Index (PERSI) is a subject index to thousands of names, places and topics mentioned in genealogical and historical articles. subscribers have access to the most current version of PERSI, where some search results link to digitized versions of the indexed articles. HeritageQuest Online, available for free at many libraries, and have a version of PERSI that includes publications through 2009. You can order copies of PERSI articles through the Allen County Public Library’s Article Fulfillment service.
  • Google Scholar searches scholarly journal articles, dissertations, legal abstracts, patents and more.
  • JSTOR is another database of academic journal articles that often has genealogically useful material. It’s available in academic and reference libraries or from home with a JPass.
  • WorldCat and the Library of Congress local history and genealogy online catalog are great places to search for compiled family histories and local histories. Many titles in WorldCat are available through interlibrary loan; visit your library for ordering help. The Library of Congress doesn’t lend most genealogical materials.
  • Online digital book and document archives may have full-text search capability. Try’s Family History Books, Google Books, Internet Archive and HathiTrust.

6. Did someone make a record when your relative died? 

Death certificates are great when they exist. Don’t settle for entries in death indexes if you don’t have to. Order the original from the county or state vital records office or find it digitized on a genealogy website. Then check every tiny detail in the original for leads to other records: Who was the informant? What was the person’s citizenship status? How long had the person lived there? Was there an autopsy? Would the cause of death have raised enough eyebrows to provoke a news story? Where was the person buried?
Obituaries and death announcements for everyday folks became more common after the Civil War. The newspaper search strategies mentioned in question No. 5 can help you locate these tems for your relatives. For an index to recent obituaries, check out the free Obituary Daily Times on RootsWeb and (where you can pay to see a full obituary). Also check tribute sites such as, where many families post modern obituaries.
Look for digitized grave markers at sites such as Find A Grave (more than 151 million memorials) and BillionGraves (15 million). Online memorials might name relatives of the deceased and give biographical information, but it’s not independently verified, so research in other sources before declaring it fact. Look for additional transcribed gravestones published online, on microfilm, or in print.
Seasoned genealogy researchers know that probate records, which document the distribution of a deceased person’s estate, usually trump wills in researching—many people die without leaving a will. recently released an enormous collection of wills and probate records covering parts of all 50 states. Many of the same records are digitized (but not indexed) on Note that the collections aren’t comprehensive and the individual probate files may be incomplete.
When you want to go beyond the superficial picture your favorite website has shown you of your relative, it’s time to ask more questions. Finding the answers will point you to new research routes and open up possibilities for rounding out your family history.
Research Tips
  • To overcome search problems with digitized newspapers indexed by optical character recognition software, search on a variety of names, places and other terms related to your ancestor.
  • City directories are helpful for finding ancestors in the 10 years between federal censuses. Looks for these digitized on genealogy websites, in public library collections and on Family History Library microfilm.
  • Don’t forget to check our list of resources.


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From the January/February 2016 Family Tree Magazine

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