A while back I attended an Ancestry.com webinar on how to make the most of your searches. I know Ancestry’s search engine twists and turns are a hot-button topic. Last fall, for example, Randy Seaver did a succinct rundown of old vs. new interfaces, at least as things stood at that point. (All I can repeat is that in case you didn’t know, you can still use the “Old Search” button at the top right of the “Search All Records” page.)
But this post (like that webinar) isn’t for searchers expert enough to know just which part of the interface annoys them the most. It’s to pass along some basic procedural tips that struck me as useful for those just starting to explore Ancestry databases. Many might think, “What, this is news?” Well, as we used to say on the copy desk, there are babies born every day who never heard of Elvis. So there.
Where to start: Do not start at the Ancestry home page. Go to the Search All Records form, and use the Advanced Search option. Checking the “exact” box is … debatable. For common given names and surnames it can help — did you know there are more than 800 variations of the name Catherine? For dates, “exact” is problematic, as we shall see.
Useful keys: To spare your fingers, know that: P = preview; J = next; K= previous; N= new form; R= current form.
Three things to do upon locating a record: (A) Read it. Really look at all the information. Scan for clues as to immigration year, time of marriage, total number of children. In census entries, look at the neighbors — some might be collateral kin. (B) Save it online to a shoebox or online tree, if you do online trees. (C) Save it offline however you prefer to do it, by saving it to your hard drive or making a printout, or whatever. I was snickering at this advice until I remembered all the records I’ve re-read and re-saved over the years.
Play with date ranges: The webinar instructors advised beginning with a plus/minus range of 10 years. For example, ancestors didn’t always care about just when they were born; there really was a time when one’s birthdate wasn’t a matter of vital importance. So start with a wide range, narrowing it as you go, depending upon the hits you get.
Use wildcards to play with spelling variations. You can replace as many characters as you want, as long as there is a minimum of three actual characters in the search term. I can pull in lots of variations on Haigney by searching H*g*y. This can be a real help with a name that goes under multiple spellings.
Look at all types of records, even if you are certain your ancestor would never be in them. Don’t search assuming that he or she: was never in the army/never left their home county/never copyrighted anything anywhere. You may well be surprised. I have.
Bon voyage and good luck!
Well, now: A copy of a 1780s population count has turned up at Kean University in Union, N.J., just down the road from me.
Note how I’m applying my terminology, however. I’m staying away from calling it a “census” because, while accurate in the strict sense, this document isn’t the sort of thing we family researchers can spend hours obsessing over on Ancestry.com. Naturally the word “census” may sneak into some headlines, getting people all hot and bothered.
Easy, tiger. Although very interesting, this doesn’t appear to contain information on specific names and their domiciles. It’s a tally of U.S. populations, state by state, drawn from state enumerations taken between 1781 and 1786. For some states, the tallies are broken down by age and race, but other states simply provided a total tally.
The information was found among papers belonging to John Kean, a member of a family still very much active in New Jersey politics today — former governor and 9/11 Commission member Thomas Kean is one example. (In New Jersey, Keans and Livingstons and Frelinghuysens are like the Appalachian Mountains of public life: they’ve just always been there.)
Descendants of the Kean and Livingston families donated a trove of papers to Kean University (no relation? What do you think?). And Kean University archivists have been slowly combing through what they describe as 200 years of American history, which is probably a good thing — researchers say all sorts of goodies keep turning up in odd places.
The population count, for example, was scribbled in a ledger that John Kean originally used for keeping accounts. Being a thrifty sort, he turned it over and used the reverse pages for taking notes when he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1785.
The count said that 2.2 million whites and Indians were living in the U.S.A., along with 567,000 blacks. Virginia had the biggest population, with 530,000 residents, more than half of them black. (New Jersey, by contrast, had about 159,000 residents.)
While it probably won’t set off any lightning bolts for individual genealogy research, the discovery does provide a nice snapshot of the United States at the dawn of its existence.
All done, and it took me about five minutes, even with a new child to list since the last time around. Despite an incredible temptation to spell my surname six different ways as a gesture of solidarity with my ancestors, I kept all spellings standard.
I also used a great tip from the Genealogical And Historical Research discussion group on LinkedIn:
Make a photocopy of your completed census form and file it with your genealogy stuff. No sense making your descendants wait 72 years to see what your answers were if they don’t have to!
I can’t believe I never thought of that! Am I the last person to start doing this?
The other day my second grader came home very excited after sharing a family tree chart with her classmates and teachers. The Spanish instructor even complimented my daughter on her grandma’s pretty set of Iberian names: Theresa Mercedes Cecelia.
Which made me giggle a bit, since the grandma in question (my mom) was the daughter of German immigrants.
First names, which you’d think would be basic signposts in figuring out ancestors, can tie you up in knots. They might make you guess at the wrong ethnicity; they might lead you on a wild goose chase to the wrong person. They might not be real first names at all.
Fortunately, first-name stories, while difficult to unravel, can make fantastic anecdotes. Here are some examples from my own tree:
My father-in-law: First came older brothers Floyd, Lloyd, Boyd and Coyd. And then came … Renzo Alton. (Please don’t tell me you saw that coming.) His mother wanted something different, and a local schoolteacher suggested Renzo. On his mail, he was R. A. Lynch. His family called him Al. I am not making any of this up, but I bet some future descendant will swear I must have been.
My dad: He was baptized Peter Jerome, but his mother never used his first name. She referred to him as Jerome, or “Sonny.” In the 1930 census my dad is listed as Jerome. As an adult, he used the name Peter. If you didn’t know the story, or didn’t weigh all the facts, you might assume the census taker missed him in 1930, or that perhaps there were two children, one named Jerome who died young, another named Peter who lived to adulthood.
My grandfather “Francie” Haigney: Well, actually, he’s Raymond Francis, but in the 1910 census, he’s Francie. If you didn’t know better, you might think the census taker got my grandpa’s gender wrong.
My mother’s name changes: She was baptized Therese Mercedes — Therese for St. Therese of Lisieux, and “Mercedes” in honor of the nun at the hospital who cared for my grandmother after the birth. Mom disliked Mercedes, and as an adult used her confirmation name, Cecelia, as her middle name. Also, she tended to spell her first name with an “a” instead of an “e”. So in a few places she’s Therese Mercedes, but more often she is Theresa Cecelia.
Those are some of my quirky naming stories, which are peculiar to the people and the circumstances. But I can think of two other common naming situations that might leave a researcher puzzled:
Nicknames: Some nickname logic has become blurred with the generations. “Liz” for “Elizabeth” is one thing, but what about “Lillie”? And not everyone immediately connects “Daisy” with Margaret, or “Mamie” with Mary. Here’s a chart of common nicknames and their possible equivalents.
Americanizations: Just as with surnames, first names and first-naming conventions can change with immigration. Some translations are obvious, as with my German grandpa (Johann/John). But a trickier case is Grandpa’s sister Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1907. In some records she is simply Kunigunde; she has also been listed as “Kuni.” And I also wouldn’t be surprised to find her in future as Anna, or even “Ann” or “Constance.” Here’s an article about immigrant name-changing.
My own name-changing stories, while amusing, also serve as a caution. Much as I’d like to think I’m on a first-name basis with my ancestors, I know better than to jump to any premature conclusions.
I couldn’t miss Assess Yourself: Challenge #3 in 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy. It’s something that seems so obvious that it never gets done. Sad to say, my report card could be better.
The Vital Documents: I’ve got the birth certificate (despite losing it once), the marriage certificate and the diplomas, all in one convenient strongbox. It’s been important for me to have this stuff together since I have moved around a bit. So, I give me an A- for this area.
The Moves: Any descendant trying to track me would be pretty mad at me by the time they got through. I was born in Ohio, raised from the age of 6 months in New Jersey, went to university in Indiana, then lived in Connecticut, Florida and Illinois before returning to New Jersey. I’d expect to make census appearances in New Jersey, Indiana, Florida and New Jersey (again) but not Ohio, Connecticut and Illinois, where my residences didn’t coincide with a census. I should make sure this is all clear on my card in my Reunion file, and it isn’t. F
Letters: My mother wrote me some letters while I was away at school, which I’ve kept. My father wrote me exactly one letter, which was missing and presumed lost for years, until I found it quite by accident this summer while searching for something else entirely. It is now locked up safely and scanned to my computer hard drive. Now excuse me while I make digital copies of my mom’s letters, too. B+
Publications: I’ve got my school yearbooks. And some high-school literary magazines with stories of mine. And a couple of scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings from my reporting days, which aren’t about me, but would say something about what I did at a certain point in time. But everything’s all over the house; it would be nice to get it all together on one shelf, huh? B
Photos: My Achilles heel. Not only do I have evil magnetic albums, I used to have an Evil Photo Box until several years ago. I did finally get my photos out of a huge cardboard moving box and sort them by year into a bunch of acid-free photo boxes. Last summer, I sorted out the digital photos on my current hard drive and backed them up. One hard drive has already failed on me. A month before that happened, I had purchased an external hard drive and backed up, so I still have my earlier digital photos. But it was a close, close thing. I’m grading myself generously; I think my fifth-grade nun would have been harsher. D-
So much to be done! At least I feel more charitable toward my ancestors now. We must share the Disorganized Document gene.