The good news: With more than 14 billion records in 32,000-plus databases, Ancestry.com is sure to hold answers to many of your family tree questions. The bad news: Ancestry.com has more than 14 billion records in 32,000-plus databases. How are you ever supposed to home in on the data specifically about your family?
Indeed, figuring out how to make your ancestors float to the top in that vast sea of data is a frustration of many Ancestry.com users. Sifting through pages of search results can feel much like that old adage: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”
One secret to searching success is to shrink that ocean into a small pool that’s easier to wade through—that is, focusing on the records most likely to mention your ancestors. You can do that using the Ancestry.com card catalog.
Do you remember the card catalog drawers at the library—the ones where you could look up a single title or find categories of books? The Ancestry.com Card Catalog works the same way: It’s a listing of all the databases on the site, searchable by title or theme. The card catalog also will help you filter searches in a way that’s impossible if you use only the global search.
When you run a global search, Ancestry.com will comb through all of its records trying to find relevant matches—many of which actually have no connection to your family. If I do a global search for John Hendrickson, born in Indiana, I get more than a half-million hits. Using the card catalog, however, I can find databases that are likely to mention my John Hendrickson. For example, I may want to search only a database of Indiana birth records or Indiana marriages. This kind of search is doable using the Ancestry.com Card Catalog and its filters.
Keep in mind, though, that the card catalog search is a search for a database, not a person. Once you find the database relevant to your search, click on the name of the database and from that point, you can do an ancestor search. This card catalog crash course from my book Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com (Family Tree Books) will walk you through the steps to master this power-user tip. Follow these five tips to conquer the card catalog and home in on the databases most likely to contain information relevant to the specifics of your genealogy research.
See the full Card Catalog search process in this step-by-step Genealogy How-To Video:
1. Open the Card Catalog.
The link to the card catalog is located under the Search tab on Ancestry.com’s main menu. When you hover over the Search tab [A], a drop-down menu will appear; Card Catalog is the last item in the list. Click it to explore the catalog.
The catalog is a listing of all of Ancestry.com’s databases of records. You’ll see two main columns here: The right column lists the titles of databases, while the left column has title and keyword search boxes, as well as several filters.
The initial view in the right column is a list of databases sorted by popularity. As you can see [B], Public Member Trees are the most popular, followed by the 1940 and 1930 US censuses. The Records column displays the number of records (individual names, not actual documents) in the database, and the Activity column indicates if Ancestry.com has updated that database recently.
You can change this default view by clicking the down arrow next to Sort By [C] and selecting to sort the list alphabetically by database title, by date updated, by date added, or by record count (which you’ll probably never use).
2. Search for databases of interest.
In the left column on the main catalog page, you’ll find two search boxes: One is for searching for databases by title; the other, by one or more keyword. If you want to see all databases specific to one location, you can get a fairly comprehensive list by typing the name of the place in the Title box. Searching for Texas in the Title box, for example, returns 209 databases [D].
If you’re unsure how a database might be named on Ancestry.com—or if using the Title box doesn’t return the results you’re looking for—use the Keywords search box [F], which looks for the word you enter anywhere in the database description, instead of just the title. This is especially important because databases aren’t always intuitively named. For example, one of the people in my family line worked for the railroad, and I wanted to see what kind of railroad-related databases were on Ancestry.com. Searching for the word railroad in database titles returns 24 databases. But when I entered railroad in the Keyword box, the search resulted in 65 databases, including employment records and a business directory of principal towns along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (A, T and SF) routes in 1889.
Other searches to try in the title and/or keyword search box include a record type plus a place, your ancestral states and hometowns, wars a person served in, schools and churches attended, and ethnicity. Remember, you can enter multiple search terms in any order, not necessarily just the order they appear in the database title or description.
If you hover your mouse over any title in the results list [E], a popup box will display a brief description of the database, including the type of information it contains, when it was originally published on Ancestry.com, and when it was last updated. If you see a database title that begins with “web,” the popup description will inform you that this is a third-party database. You can search it and view initial results on Ancestry.com, but you’ll be linked to the third-party site for full results.
3. Drill down to databases using filters.
The Ancestry.com Card Catalog has four sets of filters in the left column: collection, location, date, and languages. You can use one filter or multiple filters in combination to narrow the list of databases in your search results to those most relevant to the relatives your researching. Let’s explore each type of filter.
• Filter by Collection: Collections are the broad grouping of similar databases. This filter allows you to find databases that fall into specific collection types. The number by each type of collection represents the number of databases within that collection, not the number of records [G]. Because so many collections have more than 1,000 databases, you’ll probably want to use the collection filter in combination with one of the other filters below.
• Filter by Location: The location filter has 10 main geographic areas [H]; once chosen, some of the areas have several subfilters. For instance, if you choose USA as a filter, you’ll have the option of filtering further by state. Europe has 35 subsets, including the United Kingdom, which alone contains more than 1,000 databases. Be sure to click each of the major location filters, as some areas are included as subsets in places you may not expect (e.g., you’ll find the Federated States of Micronesia as a subset of USA, not in Oceania).
• Filter by Dates: You can filter either by a century (1600s to 1900s) or per decade within each century (e.g., 1910) [I]. If you are fairly certain of the decade in which a record will fall, this filter will be a huge help to focus on relevant records.
• Filter by Languages: Ancestry.com has databases in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Swedish [J]. If you’re doing only US research, you probably won’t need to use this filter, but once you get into international records, it’s one you may want to employ.
Once you’ve filtered your search by collection type and then by location and date, you’ll be close to finding a database that will return a few dozen, rather than a half-million hits.
I was interested in finding Civil War records for a pesky ancestor. First, I searched for the keywords Civil War; that returned 499 databases. Next, I used the filters to chose Military as collection type and USA as location. Why did I filter by location? Because I didn’t want British or Canadian civil war records appearing in the search results. Those filters took me down to 378 databases.
I knew via family story that my ancestor was in an Illinois regiment. Under USA, I selected the Illinois subset. This narrowed my search to 102 databases. Still too many to go through easily. Last, I filtered by date (1860s), as I knew the Civil War was from 1861 to 1865. I still had 98 databases in the results. What to do?
I went back up to the Military filter and choose the subset Draft, Enlistment, and Service records [K], one of several subsets of the Military collection (most collections have multiple subfilters like this). With this last filter, I narrowed the databases down to 16—a number I could easily launch and then search.
4. Explore catalog collections.
Ancestry.com’s catalog covers the site’s 11 main collections, along with several subsets of each one. Here’s an overview of the types of databases you can expect to find:
• Census and voter lists: As you might expect, this collection includes all the census databases from the United States (federal and state), United Kingdom and Canada. You’ll also find databases relative to Australia, Europe, Mexico, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
• Birth, marriage and death: This collection has three major subsets: Birth, Baptism & Christening; Marriage & Divorce; and Death, Burial, Cemetery & Obituaries. If you filter by the United States, you can further drill down by state and locality. When you filter by Canada, you’ll also have the option of filtering further by province.
• Military: The nine subsets here run the gamut from enlistment and pension databases to photos and histories. Looking for an ancestor’s military records? Filter the card catalog by Military, then select Draft, Enlistment, and Service. Filter the location to USA, and then state, as well as filter by the date. This will give you the best option for quickly finding databases to search.
• Immigration & Travel: With more than 400 databases, this collection is the place to begin your search for an immigrant ancestor. Along with passenger lists, border crossings, and passports, you’ll also find databases of ships’ pictures, and citizenship and naturalization records.
• Newspapers & Publications: This collection holds newspapers (primarily US), magazines and other periodicals. Newspapers include many small-town and special-interest titles. Look here for obituaries from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. You’ll also find birth, marriage and death announcements; the Stars and Stripes military newspaper; and African-American newspapers. Filter by periodicals for journals of German genealogy and genealogies of Virginia families.
• Pictures: The largest components of this collection are the US School Yearbooks database and Public Member Photos and Scanned Documents (which Ancestry.com members have attached to their trees). If you filter the photos collection by the location of Europe, you’ll find a beautiful collection of UK and Irish historical postcards. The Pictures collection is a hodgepodge of images, so make liberal use of the keywords search box.
• Stories, Memories & Histories: I love this collection because it contains so many digitized county histories, biographies, maps and statistics of a county’s early days. You’ll also find family genealogies, histories of organizations, oral histories, military histories, and stories of nobility, royalty and heraldry. The latter contains databases of all things royal, including Burke’s Peerage and the Virginia Heraldica, a database of Virginia families that were allowed a coat of arms.
• Maps, Atlases and Gazetteers: This collection has 100-plus databases, with a balanced selection of European and North American maps from the 1500s to today. They include historical land ownership maps for the United States, as well as indexes of early landowners. If you have UK ancestry, search through the old land maps and gazetteers—it’s always an aid when you’re trying to guess where the family might have moved during their “missing” years.
• Schools, Directories & Church histories: Subsets here include City & Area Directories, Professional & Organizational Directories, Church Histories & Records, School Lists & Yearbooks, and Telephone Directories. Make wise use of the card catalogs filters to pinpoint databases that cover the places and times your relatives lived. Select the Professional & Organizational Directories to find ancestors who may have been physicians, civil servants, baseball players, Irish flax growers, and more. Use Church Histories & Records to find gems such as the Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, as well as church records.
• Tax, Criminal, Land & Wills: Legal documents can contain a wealth of information about a family. The Bank & Insurance Records subset includes Freedman’s Bank Records, an invaluable resource for anyone searching African-American ancestors. Filter by Tax Lists to find the invaluable Griffith’s Valuation, an Irish database referencing approximately 1 million individuals who occupied property in Ireland between 1848 and 1864. The Wills, Estates & Guardians subset contains extracts of wills and probate records. Some records include a transcript of the will itself.
• Reference, Dictionaries & Almanacs: This is like having the best genealogy reference library on your computer. If you’re struggling to locate a place that no longer exists, check out the Geographic Reference Library under Dictionaries & Encyclopedias. You can use it to locate nearly any town, city, county or other populated place in the United States. Using a combination of filters and keywords, I found a database titled Missouri History and searched for Lone Jack, the town where my ancestors settled in 1836. The dictionary contained several references to the Civil War battle fought there, along with a mention of my ancestors in conjunction with the settlement’s early days. To find the Lone Jack reference, I clicked Dictionaries & Encyclopedias, then selected the database of Missouri History, and then used a keyword search. When I searched for Lone Jack in the main Dictionaries & Encyclopedias Keyword box, I got zero hits. If at first you don’t find what you’re looking for, be willing to dig deeper.
5. Search an individual database.
Once you’ve filtered down to the databases you want to search, right-click (on a Mac, Control-click) your mouse on the title of the database you want to search and select Open in New Tab [L].
Why not just click on the database name? After you search that database, you’ll want to return to your filtered list to explore other relevant databases. If you navigated away from your filtered list, you’ll have to redo your filters. But if you opened a database in a new tab, you can just return to the first browser tab containing your filtered card catalog list.
Next, scroll down on the database home page for source information that tells you where the data came from. For many databases, you’ll also find information about the database that goes beyond the popup description in step 2. This section may tell you about the collection’s coverage and any missing records, potentially shedding light on unsuccessful searches. If you searched for Kentucky ancestors in the 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes, for example, you’d come up empty: This collection covers 21 of the 38 US states in existence at the time.
Next, go ahead and search the database just as you would when using the global search. Note, too, that each database will have search boxes unique to that database. For example, the 1920 census search page lets you search by year of arrival and year of naturalization. The census search page here doesn’t offer these options. Similarly, when searching Civil War Draft Registration Records, congressional district is one of the search fields—a parameter not available in the global search.
6. Explore “non-people” databases.
You may be wondering why you’d want to work with a database that’s not specific to an ancestor.
Some collection types, such as maps and historical postcards, aren’t indexed by people’s names. Don’t dismiss such collections because they lack ancestor names: These materials can have great value, especially for learning more about your ancestors’ places and times.
Remember the keyword search for railroads I did to find databases? The business directory along the A, T, and SF routes listed places in Missouri, including my hometown of St. Joseph. My family lived in the nearby countryside in 1889. Skimming through the businesses gave me quite a sense of what my family would’ve seen when they went to town.
The postcard collection is another of the not-to-be-missed “non-people” databases. Search the Card Catalog by location and also by keyword. In my case, I searched for Missouri with keyword St. Joseph and found several old postcards, including a great linen one of the Pony Express Motel, where my dad installed a new heating system sometime in the 1940s or early 1950s.
Excerpted from the Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com (Family Tree Books) by Nancy Hendrickson.
Tip: Each time you begin a new card catalog search, remember to click the Clear All link located by the
Title/Keyword search boxes. Otherwise, the system will remember your filters from the last search and apply
them to your new search.
Tip: Ancestry.com’s card catalog is free to non-subscribers. If you’re on the fence about buying a subscription, use the catalog to identify databases of interest, then evaluate whether you’ll get your money’s worth.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Family Tree Magazine.