Search the Records

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Following the careful, thorough search procedures below will help you learn more about your ancestors:

Look for Indexes[edit | edit source]

Indexes can be very valuable, but some may be incomplete and some records may have been misinterpreted. Some indexes include only the name of the main person the record is about and may not list parents, witnesses, and other important information in the record. Some names may have been omitted. Most compiled and many original records have indexes. Some indexes are published separately, especially original records.

Do not trust indexes that don't work.

Do not trust indexes (that do not list your ancestor). If he should be in the index but is not, try an alternate spelling of the name. Or, search the record page-by-page until you find him. Even if you do find him in the index, thumb through the records for places they missed him in the index until you answer the research question.

Search for the Whole Family[edit | edit source]

Each person’s record may include clues for identifying other family members. Therefore, search for complete families, not just individuals in the record. For example, in passenger lists, search for your ancestor then seek parents, children, and siblings who may be listed. Sometimes other family members are recorded at a later date or on another page. Even if your focus is only on one individual, your research will likely be more successful if you keep the person in a family and community context.

In most families, children were born at regular intervals. If there is a longer period between the births of some children, search the records for a child who may have been overlooked. You may need to search other records and places to find a missing family member.

Search for one generation at a time and do not attempt to connect anyone who lived more than a generation before your proven ancestor.

Search for complete families,
not just individuals.

Surname Searches[edit | edit source]

As you search a record, you may want to make note of others with the same surname you are seeking. Often you will not know all the family members, so these may be relatives you will need later in your research. Keep your quest, goals, and current objective in mind so that you will be aware of persons of interest to associated goals.

Establish Search Ranges[edit | edit source]

Establish reasonable ranges for your searches.

Often you do not begin a search with exact information about you ancestor. The marriage date may have been approximated from the birth date of the first child; you may not know the town or native spelling of the place where they lived. To increase your likelihood of success, establish reasonable ranges for your searches. Learn to guess well. For example, identify the following:

  • Geographic areas. Your information about an ancestor’s residence may not be correct or specific. Some residents near boundaries may be listed in several jurisdictions. Search all appropriate jurisdictions. For example, if you find children's baptisms in a church register, but not the parents' marriage, look in the records of neighboring churches.
When searching original records, search every
jurisdiction where the family may have lived.
  • Area search. You may need to look through the records of neighboring areas. Families often moved to nearby towns, or were recorded in records of neighboring jurisdictions, even those not charged with keeping records from their town. Local histories may help you determine local migration patterns.
  • Time period to search. Determine the range of time in which the events could have occurred. For example you may want to search military records for the time period when the person was between 15 and 45 years of age. Dates obtained from some sources may not be accurate. Look several years before and after the date you think an event occurred.

Choose records that cover the range of years you determine. You may find it helpful to create a time line of key events in the person's life.

  • Spelling Variations. The spelling of names and places may vary greatly from record to record and even within the same record. Spelling was not standardized in early records. Many names were not spelled as they are today. Look for the many ways a name could have been spelled. Most record keepers spelled names the way they sounded.

You may want to make a list of all the spelling variations to look for. For example, for the name "Tyrell" you could check for Terrell, Turrell, Terrill, Tyrel, Tyrol, and Tyral. Consider translations of the name or place or how persons speaking another language may have spelled the name. The German Johann Schmidt may be found under Smith if an Englishman made the record.

Be Thorough[edit | edit source]

Be reasonably thorough in order to compare and contrast several records of the same event. A minor detail in a record may be the specific information you need to trace the family further. Look for small clues. Note the occupation of the person and the names of witnesses, godparents, neighbors, relatives, guardians, and others. Search for references to prior residences. Knowing where the family came from is crucial to continued research.

The information you are seeking may be out of sequence or misfiled in a record. Perhaps it is a part of another file. Poor record keeping, improper preservation, or improper microfilming may have missed or misplaced the record. If you do not find information where it should be, check the catalog entry for any notations or explanations about the record.

If the catalog entry does not explain the arrangement of the record, look for introductory material in the record. The records may be arranged in alphabetical or chronological order or by geographical proximity.

Know Limitations[edit | edit source]

Few records are complete, especially original records. Information may be missing from a record because:

  • The record was not kept or not preserved.
  • Pages may be missing or partially torn out.
  • It may have been destroyed in a flood or fire.
  • The record was lost, misfiled, or forgotten by the record keeper.
  • Information may not have been recorded. Often it was several years after a law required a record before everyone complied.
  • Some records were not intended to include every person.
  • A compiler may have missed a person or not assembled the family correctly.
  • The jurisdiction may have changed and excluded the person you are seeking.

Other problems with the record may limit the amount of information you find, such as:

  • faded writing.
  • illegible script.
  • ink blotches.
  • water damages.
  • pages skipped during microfilming.

Learn as much as possible about the record, including who made the record, as well as when, where and why it was made. As you learn about specific record limitations, you will be able to search them more effectively.

Multiple Families[edit | edit source]

On occasion, several different families you are interested in may have lived in the same location and therefore be in the same records. If you are searching for several persons in the same record (see One Research Objective at a Time), be sure to carefully watch for all of them. Don't try for too many. Describe the results on each appropriate research log.