click to view original photo

Getting Past your Ancestor’s Surname: The Need for a Comprehensive Research Plan

For many of us, we were taught to research our family tree by taking a surname and plugging it into some online genealogical database. While this does help us get our research started it usually does not sustain research over a long period of time. Why? Because not every source that mentions your ancestor is indexed by their surname.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 885 (approx.)
Short URL:

For many of us, we were taught to research our family tree by taking a surname and plugging it into some online genealogical databases like FamilySearch or Ancestry. While this does help us get our research started, it usually does not sustain research over a long period of time. Why? Because not every source that mentions your ancestor is indexed by their surname. After a while, you will miss other information about that ancestor if you choose to only research using a surname and nothing else.

Like us, our ancestors did not live in a bubble. They lived in a community where they interacted with neighbors, family, friends, and others like the local storekeeper, midwife, doctor, and judge. In their lives they held occupations. They may have belonged to a religious community or a number of fraternal and community organizations. Their children went to school; they paid taxes and bought land. In short, our ancestors led busy lives that resulted in documentation, but that documentation is not always found by conducting a surname search. That information might be indexed by the locality, the name of another person, other subject and/or other keywords.

Your Research Plan

As you choose to research various ancestors, you may want to outline a plan for researching that person and family. Some elements of a research plan might include:

Define what you want to learn about your ancestor. Do you want to find out everything about your great-grandfather or are you more interested in his family's migration to California? Taking on too big of a research project can make it difficult to focus. Think about what you want to know, then write it out as a question and go from there. A specific research question helps guide your research and leads you to the next step. For more help in defining a family history research question consult, Learning Historical Research. Although it does not cover genealogy, it does provide some great guidance on starting your research project.

Determine what search terms to use. Yes, you will want to start by researching your ancestor's name, but don't stop there. While researching by surname, make sure you also consider alternative spelling, misspelling, and different versions of your ancestor's name like using initials instead of a first name or using a nickname.

After that, consider other ways to research your ancestor such as researching the city or county they lived in; researching neighbors and other community members; and researching their occupation or religion. Remember that it's through your ancestor's interaction with others that there will be additional documentation, but most likely that will not be found by doing a surname search alone.

When using search engines whether it is an internet search engine or the search engine for a library card catalog, make sure that you understand how that search engine works and how to best use it. In some cases you can use wild cards to substitute for words. You can also conduct advanced searches which can narrow your search greatly. An effective search will help you get more relevant hits and less of what you don't need.

Most websites will provide a primer on how to get the best results out of their search engine. In addition, you may want to consult Google your Family Tree by Dan Lynch, and The Official Guide to by George G. Morgan ()).

Survey resources. What documents and resources will you use to find information about your ancestor? What repositories will you use? Make sure you do a thorough search by looking for internet sources and archives and libraries. You will want to find primary documents and secondary documents that will help you answer your research question. Places to find primary and secondary sources include:

• Family History Library and Family History Centers

• Large Genealogy Libraries (Sutro, Allen County, Godfrey)

• Public, State and University Libraries

• County and State Archives

• Organizational and Religious Archives

• Membership Societies

• Museums

• Manuscript Collections

• Periodical Source Index (PERSI)

• National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC)

• National Archives

• Historical/Genealogy Societies (local, regional and state)

• Courthouses

Internet websites to start with would include:


Ancestry ($)

World Vital Records ($)

US Genweb


Footnote ($)

Genealogy Today ($)

Cyndi's List

Google Search Engine and Google Books

Godfrey Memorial Library ($)

• Heritage Quest (through library subscription)

This is just a sampling of possible internet sites that you should look at. Remember to do more than a surname search on the site's home page. You will want to do a search by locality and other keywords such as occupation and religion. In some cases, doing a name search from the site's home page will not provide you with all the hits that exist for your ancestor. For example, on FamilySearch make sure to make use of the library card catalog as well as the new digitized records and indexes.

Use resources to find additional resources. Information you find on your ancestor should lead you to additional documents. For example, an obituary may lead you to the minister who conducted the funeral, which could lead you to church records. Researching in a book provides you with a bibliography and endnotes or footnotes may lead to other research that may help you. Read documents you find for information about your ancestor and for clues to where other information may be found.

By coming up with a comprehensive research plan, you are more likely to find more information about your ancestor whether those sources are indexed by his surname or by some other keyword.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles