Family History Search Tips

I make no apologies for posting this advice. If it helps just one person it’s worth repeating it.

Here goes:

  • Do not rely on index searches and/or transcriptions – look at actual documents or digitised images of them;
  • Whenever possible use more than one genealogical dataset provider for any searches; and
  • When searching be flexible with spellings, dates, ages etc.

This was brought home to me yet again recently whilst doing my Aveyard One-Name Study.

Extracting all occurrences of the name from the 1851 census in England and Wales I used both Ancestry and Findmypast. Searching purely on Aveyard, and not including my variant surname searches, the totals were:

  • Ancestry: 206; and
  • Findmypast: 183.

Both providers had results not found by the other one.

I also looked at Haveyard. Ancestry had five results and Findmypast six.

I went through each result individually, checking against the original census images. Some proved not to be Aveyard entries at all. Even individual information within correct entries had discrepancies when checked against the image – ages, occupations, names and relationships incorrect for instance. And there was no correlation with the errors between the providers. As for the quality of images, that too varied. For some Findmypast was far superior; for others Ancestry proved more legible. And some were difficult on both.

In the end I came up with 211 genuine Aveyard/Haveyard entries. This total is purely coincidental in matching the Ancestry total. My 211 included some not found by either provider in the Aveyard/Haveyard searches, but based on my knowledge of names I knew should be there. And this total does not include the Halfyard spelling sometimes used.

To put it simply if I had used one provider for my search and not checked the images I would have replicated errors and had missing entries.

Even my 211 may be a hostage to fortune as I delve more into my Aveyard and wider ancestry, become more familiar with names which should feature based on results from other record sets, and look at broader wildcard searches.

I use this census search as an example. The same principles apply equally for any searches. Only today, finding someone in a 1939 Register search via Findmypast proved impossible. Switch to Ancestry and it was the first “hit.”

Also just because you cannot find an expected result does not mean it isn’t there. It could be simply mis-transcribed, the document could be damaged or pages may have been skipped in the digitisation process. So check the original document, especially if you are relying on one provider for your search. In fact I’d say always go through the document.

In recent weeks I’ve found burials which didn’t come up with a normal search; ships passengers missed off the search indexes; incorrect dates even down to the wrong year; and even a 1912 birth entry on the General Register Office (GRO) website which had the mother’s maiden name totally mangled. I went ahead and ordered the certificate, trusting my instincts (combined with reasoned searching and elimination). It proved the right call. The name was mis-transcribed on the main index, because the document itself had legibility issues and the name was highly unusual.

Another GRO example recently was using Findmypast marriage indexes for 1904. The page number was transcribed as 133 and their marriage finder hint came up with two suggested grooms. Looking at the image, the page number was actually 123. Using FreeBMD, a search on District, Date, Page and Volume sorted it and the correct groom was identified. Needless to say it wasn’t either of the two suggested via the Findmypast search.

The moral of the story is do not rely on indexes, transcriptions and the search algorithms of online genealogy sites; use more than one provider as it is less likely the same transcription error will be repeated on all; always check the image if at all possible; be flexible with your spellings, do not rely on what you think is the established one; and don’t accept negative search results without question.

So from one “old” genealogist, maybe by following these general principles you will have more chance of “meeting” your ancestors whilst you are alive, than in any afterlife!

One response to “Family History Search Tips

  1. Good advice can never be repeated too often!

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