Ancestry.com, the largest commercial genealogy website, went online in 1996. Based in Utah, it has localized websites in nine countries. It boasts a huge collection of more than 18 billion records, including US, UK and Canadian censuses; Irish Catholic parish registers; birth, marriage, death, military and immigration records; digitized books and city directories; and more than 80 million member-contributed family trees. AncestryDNA, launched in 2012, has DNA profiles of 3 million people.
These four strategies will help you search Ancestry.com for your ancestors efficiently—and successfully:
1. Use search filters to broaden or narrow your search.
Names spelled in unexpected ways and transcription errors (caused when an indexer misreads a document) can confound your best search efforts. And sometimes you won’t know a person’s exact years and places of birth and death. So 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 (shown on the next page) to specify how closely the records in your search results must match your search terms.
When you fill out the search form with a person’s name, the place an event occurred, or the date an event occurred, an Exact checkbox appears 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.
2. Use sliders to broaden or narrow your results.
The “sliders” under Search Filters on the left of your search results correspond to the filters on the search form. For example, the given name slider has five positions:
- sounds like and initials
- exact, sounds like and similar
- exact and similar
Event date sliders have six positions:
- +/- 10 years
- +/- 5 years
- +/- 2 years
- +/- 1 year
Location sliders have seven positions:
- state and adjacent states
- county and adjacent counties
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. To reopen the search form and change the terms you typed, click the Edit Search link below the sliders.
3. Search specific record categories and collections.
Using the main search form to find someone in all of Ancestry.com’s records and family trees at once is a good way to begin your research. But searching specific record categories and individual databases lets you focus on the most relevant records and use search forms customized to the type of information in that collection.
From the Search tab at the top, select broad categories, including Census & Voter Lists; Birth, Marriage & Death; Immigration & Travel; Public Member Trees; and Military. If you’re researching an immigrant, for example, select Immigration & Travel. The search form has fields for dates and places of arrival and departure, and place of origin.
Keep in mind that several important record categories, including Private Member Trees, Newspapers and Pictures, aren’t listed under the Search tab. To find these, select All Collections 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 others. You also could click one of the featured data collections, such as US, Border Crossings from Canada to U.S., 1895-1956.
The best way to find a specific database is to use the Card Catalog, accessible 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. 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 can filter the catalog by collection and location, too. To see collections for Lancaster County, Pa., use the Filter by Location option and select the country USA, the state Pennsylvania and the county Lancaster. The 102 matches include local histories, church records and directories.
4. Search from your Ancestry Member Tree or genealogy software.
If you have a Member Tree, when you start filling in the search form with a name, the site will suggest matching names from your trees. Select one, and the search form will autofill 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 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.)
Also retry the search with different combinations of criteria, such as without family members’ names, with different places of residence and with different keywords, such as the target person’s 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. In shifting its focus to Ancestry Member Trees, Ancestry.com sold its desktop genealogy software, Family Tree Maker, to Software MacKiev. To search online for someone from your Family Tree Maker software, 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.
RootsMagic genealogy software for Windows, also has the ability to search records on Ancestry.com.
Save time and make Ancestry.com more convenient to use by following these 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 nonwildcard characters.
Get automatic hints.
Ancestry.com can automatically search its records and family trees for your ancestors. Just create a free Ancestry Member Tree online and/or keep your family tree in Family Tree Maker software for Windows or Mac. A waving leaf by a name in your tree indicates a potential match in its records or in other members’ trees. Click to review whether the hint is in fact for your ancestor. (RootsMagic is also adding Ancestry WebHints.)
Edit your tree on the go.
Use Ancestry.com’s free mobile app for Apple or Android to create and edit your Member Tree on your phone or tablet. You can add records you find in Ancestry.com, as well as records uploaded from your device. Changes will automatically sync to all your devices.
Find it free.
This page lists free indexes on Ancestry.com; some of which include record images. Search the Ancestry Wiki for World Archives Project, Live Projects to find a list of volunteer-indexed databases available to search for free. Also search the Ancestry.com Card Catalog on the keyword free; many of the results will be free databases. You can access almost all Ancestry.com’s records free at Family-Search Centers and at libraries subscribing to Ancestry Library Edition. Contact your library or check its website to see if it offers this service.
Don’t lose access to your records.
Anyone can create an Ancestry Member Tree for free, and paying subscribers can attach Ancestry.com records to people in their trees. 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 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 file name so you can easily find it. You also could use Family Tree Maker software to keep a copy of your family tree on your computer that syncs with your online tree.
Attach long records as PDFs.
When saving a record to your Member Tree, Family Tree Maker software or computer, you can save only one page at a time. This takes awhile for large files, such as a long Revolutionary War pension file or a book chapter, and it creates a new attached record for each page. HeritageQuest Online, available through many libraries, used to let you download multiple pages from a book or a whole pension file at once. But now that Ancestry.com “powers” HeritageQuest Online, you can save only one page at a time. To speed things up, you could attach select pages from a long record, or use software like Adobe Acrobat to combine the pages into a single PDF.