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How Savvy Genealogists Search a Database

Searching databases can be frustrating. Judy Rosella Edwards shares some tips for finding more results.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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We all spend hours and hours of searching before we find the information we are looking for. The more time we spend searching, the better our results. That is partly due to learning better search technique. Watch someone who has been using databases for years, and you will see what I mean. So what are the secrets to quickly finding information in a database?

Understanding Names

Most people know that "Sally" and "Sarah" have traditionally been used interchangeably in the United States. If your ancestor was "Sally Durant," who lived in Peoria, Illinois, you won't find her listed. Her death certificate reads "Sarah E. Durant."

Don't search for Sally – or Sarah. Instead, search for "Sa" as the first name.

There are other instances where this technique comes in handy. Never include a period in a search, under any circumstances.

Written Abbreviation Full Name Search Term To Use
Chas. Charles Cha, Ed
Edw. Edward, Edwin Ed
Jno. Jonathan Jo, Jn
Wm. William Will,Wm

Understanding Places

It is true that there is a city named Ontario in California. But it was founded in 1882. Someone who reportedly died in Ontario, CA, in 1865, more likely died in Ontario, Canada. Search for Canada or "CA," instead of "California."

Ontario was, however, named in honor of Ontario, Canada, from whence the founders hailed. There have been numerous name duplications across the United States, and around the globe. This replication of name can lead to a lot of confusion. Always consider all the possibilities.

According to the burial records for Springdale Cemetery, in Peoria, Illinois, a number of the deceased were from Prospect Heights. The cemetery is located on Prospect Road and there was a time when a section of the city was referred to as Prospect Heights. Of course, 176 miles away is a suburb of Chicago known as Prospect Heights. Eliminating the county will more likely locate the ancestor you are looking for.


So often researchers focus on names and dates, ignoring practical things like what someone did for a living. will search on occupations. For instance, expand the search window and type "Edwards" as a last name and "bricklayer" in the keyword field. The result is a list of people named "Edwards" who were bricklayers. will also locate people who did not work or whose work was a calling. Try the same search with the surname "Edwards," using "inmate" as a keyword. The result is a list of people who were inmates. The first person in my search was an inmate at the Wake County Home for Aged and Infirm in Raleigh, NC. The term "inmate" is used for patients in sanitariums, asylums.

The term "inmate" is also frequently used in census enumerations to identify individuals living at an institution, such as an orphanage, where they also work. Nuns working at an orphanage are more likely employed as "teachers" or "supervisors." But other religious workers living at the institution, with no other specific job, are listed as an "inmate."

And then, of course, are prisoners. Anyone who is incarcerated at the time of an enumeration is listed as an "inmate."

Dealing with Spaces

When it comes to databases, rethink the alphabet. It does not really matter that Great-Grandma De Vore always put a space between "De" and "Vore." Search both ways, starting without the space. Some databases won't even execute a search if there is a space in the surname.

Try using simply "De" as the surname and providing as much complete information as possible for the first name, middle name, place of birth, date of birth, and so on. The resulting list may be long. But, it may the only practical way to find the person you are looking for.

Know Your Shortcuts

A quicker way to sift through search results is to use the keyboard search function. Here's how. Use the State of Illinois surname search at to look for "Edwards" as the Last Name and "W" as the first name. The result is a list of 229 subjects.

Let's say that we know that William Jasper Edwards died in Quincy, IL, but we are not sure what county that is in. Hold down the Control Key on your keyboard and type the letter "S" (for search). A little search box pops up at the top of your browser. Type in "Quincy." The browser reports that there are four instances of the word "Quincy" among the search results.

Your cursor will pop down the page to the first occurrence of the word "Quincy." If that is not the right person, look back up at the top of your browser. There will be a button that says "Previous" and one that says "Next." Click on "Next" to see the other people on this page that died in "Quincy."

Since these names are displayed onscreen, use your cursor to highlight the text you want to keep. Use the Copy command (hold down the Control Key and tap the letter "C" for copy). Now open a text file and use the Paste command ((hold down the Control Key and tap the letter "P" for paste) to store the information in a file you can save or print. Don't forget your source! Use the Copy-and-Paste method to copy the URL and text information about the name of the database so you can cite your source.

Other Little Tricks

Also, save time by tabbing from one field to another. Stopping to reach for your mouse and clicking in the next field before typing is a huge time waster. If you need to move to a previous field, hold down the Shift key while you hit the Tab key.

Once you find information on screen, you'll find it easier to read if you do pick up your mouse and drag it across the data to highlight it. If you still are having trouble reading it, hold down the Control key and tap the Plus Sign to make everything on the screen larger (Control plus Minus Sign reduced the size again).


Expand your skills. Expand your searches. Borrow liberally from computer skills you use elsewhere when you are searching genealogical databases.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

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.

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