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Tips on Searching for Ancestors on the Internet

Imagine a freeway with more than a billion off ramps, all leading to discernable pools of information. That is a layman's description of the (WWW ) World Wide Web.


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Imagine a freeway with more than a billion off ramps, all leading to discernable pools of information. That is a layman's description of the (WWW ) World Wide Web. There are some very important databases and gems of information that can be hard to find. Each of these off ramps has a sign, and there are two basic tools that explain such signs: search engines and subject directories. Each helps the Internet traveler to figure out which off ramp he or she should take.

Search engines use a computer program called a spider because it crawls across the web to compile and collect similar Web pages. Subject directories are organized collection of Websites chosen and organized by humans.

The largest difference between these two programs is that search engines provide a quantity of sites, while subject directories provide quality sites. Both should be used in searching for ancestors. Sometimes I will type a basic keyword like a surname, a geographical location, or even an event to start a comprehensive search. Then I narrow the field by selecting the most likely sites that could possibly hold results.

Specific keywords become critical at every turn of your search for information. Generalized keywords will often result in useless searches. Look for an uncommon word that would identify your ancestor from others. Sometimes if you want data about one ancestor, it is better to enter the family tree at a different point. Use an ancestor which has an unusual name. Thus, you are looking for data on uncle John Smith, but there are thousands of them listed. You know that your uncle married a "Matilda Goody" and that name can be used to find your uncle John.

Different search engines have different search parameters. The LDS site at has a period of time from 20 years to the exact date found. This is invaluable in searching for relatives in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) whom have died after 1930. It should be noted that Social Security did not exist before 1930 and many did not receive benefits until the 1950‘s.

The best researchers have a knack or an ability to conjure up all the nuances of how a name is spelled and abbreviated. I have always been amazed at how my grandfather, Ewell Rufus Owen, was written in an 1860 U.S. census in Kentucky as "Rufus U. Owin".

This particular example is further complicated by the debate in my family that perhaps Ewell which was represented as "U" in the census, was really using his middle name as his first name.

It is not unusual, especially when fathers name their sons with their names. I found a whole group of relatives in Iowa whom used their middle names as their first names in legal documents. Ewell's father was listed on the same census as "W. D. Owin". I could have been searching forever, and I still would not have found him, if it were not for the automatic feature of the search engine at the LDS site which checked other spellings for the surname of "Owen." Thus the first rule of searching for a name on a census or other database, is to not move on until you have exhausted every conceivable variation of your ancestor's name. A computer is very concise. One letter, one space, or a symbol out of place, may cause your search to be a bust. Your challenge is to guess how they may have spelled the name, what nicknames could apply and how they may have misspelled or hacked off portions of the name. The best technique is to make a list of possible alternative spellings and check off each one you have tried before deciding that they are not in that set of records.

Keep in mind that often our relatives were not fluent in English. They may not of known how to write and had to rely on an impatient, uncaring and arrogant clerk or clergy in the community to enter their names in records and documents. Not to mention the illegibility factor that can cause poor transcription of the name.

In defense of such clerks, whom had to ride miles to distant farms, they were often faced with a miffed farmer who's brogue or drawl is so bad that the poor clerk can't fully understand what he said. This is all part of inaccurate records.

One such name I came across was Amos Hostetler. His surname had a variety of spellings, including one from a deep German brogue spelled Hockstetler, the "Hock" sounded more like someone getting ready to spit.

If you were an indentured servant off the boat, you had little control over how a member of the port authority would decided to spell your name. For example, one family that married into my Smith family line had the French surname of Tusiant. The log showed it as "Dussing" and the name was latter changed to "Tussing" by the next generation. Can you imagine what would have happened if the family had not tried to change it back? How would a researcher know if he was looking at the same family? On top of this example, a relative over the phone told me, "In Ohio we pronounced it as "Toosing".

Then you also have to account for the anglicizing of Europe surnames into an American version. For example the German surname of Schmidt become the name Smith. My sympathy goes out to Norwegian and Scandinavian researchers and the rearrangement of the surname for each additional generation.

When I started my searches on-line in 1996, websites were fairly simple with the majority of information in scrolling columns. Today, commercial enterprises have spoiled some of the major databases. has gobbled up a lot of databases by purchasing the rights to them and then turning around and charging users a monthly fee to see the data.

Sometimes you can miss data in newspaper indexes because you don't know what the abbreviations mean. So make sure you understand the common abbreviation used in databases. You also have to know something about the history and religious traditions of your family line in order to make a good guess as to how a name may be spelled. It is not a waste of time to read some local history which coincides with your ancestors. Often these tidbits can give you a clue as to where to look for your relatives. The best example is my great great grandfather, Joseph B. Owen whom in the 1850 census was in Hopkins County, Kentucky and by the 1860 census he was listed in the Webster County census. Reading a little history of the area, I discovered Webster County was formed as a county between 1850 and 1860. Joseph had not moved, the county lines did.

There is nothing worse than to discover later that you were so close to finding information about an ancestor, only to have missed it by typing in a wrong letter or symbol during a search.

Computers are exact and unforgiving electrical contrivances, the only way you can avoid missing data about your family is to think like one.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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

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