Discover 10 simple genealogy search tips that’ll help you to discover those more elusive ancestors.
A Wild Genealogy Search Tip
Use asterix in place of one or more letters. For example a search of P*hers will reveal Pithers, Peathers, Pythers OR a search for *thers will reveal Bithers, Withers, Wethers, Lethers Peatthers etc.
Use a question mark in place of just one letter. For example P?thers will bring up Pithers and Pethers and Pathers.
Combining wildcards is one of my top genealogy search tips because the results are so powerful. For example a P*th?r* search will bring up lots of variants but avoid Peters which is surprisingly rarely a misspelling of Pithers.
Less Is More with this Genealogy Search Tip
Mix up your name combos. Try searching with just a first name and narrow down results using age and location. Great for ancestors in small rural communities.
Alternatively search by surname only. Sometimes our ancestors’ first names were pretty fluid. My Great-Grandfather George alternated his real name with the nickname, Sam.
Of course sometimes both first and surnames are incorrectly transcribed. Take a punt and search with no name but narrow down by location. Great if you have a previous (or future) address for your ancestor.
An Alternative to Source To Search
If you cannot find an ancestor in one source, try another. For example, search for ancestors in both Parish Registers and Bishops Transcripts (copies of registers sent to the Bishop). OR search for your Irish ancestors in dog licence records, to cover missing census years.
Trust this Genealogy Search Tip
Not everything is online. Even record sets that are online are not always complete. Trust me when I say that this is often not obvious. In fact it’s something pro genealogists like me often rant about – because it should be made much more obvious than it is!
If you can’t find an ancestor in an online parish collection see whether you can browse the pages instead. Is there a gap in your year of interest?
Of course there are also millions of records offline that are not digitalised at all. For example, I’ve never found a registration or discharge record for my 3x Great Grandfather’s military service. BUT flicking through original offline muster roll books revealed him as a deserter! It’s something I never would have found online.
All Genealogy Sites Are Not The Same
Different genealogy websites may contain the same records but they were not transcribed by the same people. If you can’t find an ancestor on Ancestry’s census records then try looking for them on Find My Past or The Genealogist. Keep a list of who you want to find and make the most of free trials or special open access weekends.
You'll be a FAN of this Search Tip
If you can’t find your ancestors try looking for their neighbours, their marriage witnesses – their Friends, Acquaintances / Associates and Neighbours. The people around your ancestor might just lead you straight to him / her.
Repeat this Genealogy Search Tip
Keep a log of your searches and repeat them periodically. We are human and we all make mistakes. You might have over looked something last time you searched. You might have just got eye skip! Or the records you were searching may have been updated, added to or erroneous transcriptions fixed.
Browse Records, Transcribed or Not
Sites like Ancestry hold a wealth of records that are un-transcribed or not indexed. You can find these in the search catalogue. Type in your place of interest and browse through the various collections that come up. Many will have a search box but read the descriptions – it may be that these records are only partially transcribed!
Transcribed records sometimes contain transcription errors or even missed pages. If possible browse through the originals.
Swap With A Friend
Sometimes we’ve been looking at a brick wall for so long that we just cannot see the wood for the trees. Swap your research with a friend. Sometimes the best genealogy search tip is simply a fresh pair of eyes.
Save / print this article as a pdf
Never forget a search tip again! Save this article as a PDF (or print without the sidebar) and join my Curious Descendants gang. Receive daily email tips and weekly news roundup. Opt out at any time.
Join The Curious Descendants!
If you enjoyed this then you’ll LOVE my Curious Descendants emails. I send daily emails packed with genealogy tips, ideas and stories. Plus a weekly roundup ensuring you’ll never miss one of my articles (or an episode of #TwiceRemoved) ever again.