4 Things To Do When Using a Genealogy Database

The launch of a big new database is genealogy’s equivalent to chumming shark-infested waters. Everybody and their brother (and cousins) rush in to search. Some people come out with tasty morsels; others come out empty-handed and frustrated. Whether you’re looking at the latest database on Ancestry or FamilySearch or exploring a new-to-you collection, here are 4 things you should do when using a genealogy database.

1. Read the Introduction

You’ve probably heard this advice when it comes to books. It’s true for databases, too. Don’t go by the title alone. Ancestry’s “Ohio, Marriages, 1803-1900” doesn’t contain all of Ohio for that entire timespan. The “About” section of the page states:

Records from the following counties may be found in this database: Allen, Ashland, Athens, Auglaize, Belmont, Columbiana, Coshocton, Clark, Crawford, Darke, Defiance, Fairfield, Franklin, Gallia, Hancock, Henry, Highland, Hocking, Holmes, Huron, Paulding, Jackson, Lawrence, Mahoning, Muskingum, Ottawa, Preble, Putnam, Richland, Ross, Sandusky, Scioto, Seneca, Shelby, and Wayne Counties.

That’s 35 out of Ohio’s 88 counties. Further, not each of those counties is covered from 1803 through 1900. The database covers Athens County only from 1851-1865, for example. You can avoid a lot of frustration if you go into this database knowing what it does — and does not — include.

Now, before you start putting the bad mouth on Ancestry or any other website for titling their collections that way, you should know that brick-and-mortar archives have titled their collections the same way for years. “Smith Family Papers, 1800-1910” might have one letter from 1800 and an obit from 1910, but the bulk of the material is from the 1880s. Read the introduction.

2. Search for the Known

When Ancestry launched their U.S. Wills and Probate collection, the first thing I did was search for a will that I knew existed (and that I already had a copy of). Why? Because I wanted to see how the search worked and how the results came back. Having an idea in mind of what I should see helped me get familiar with how they were giving me information.

3. Search for a Common Name

If the database you’re using doesn’t have something that you know exists, search for a common name. I’ve searched for John Smith and John Johnson more times than I can count. (Then again, my 3rd-great-grandfather was John Johnson, so I have a good reason to look for that name!)

Searching for a common name should give you plenty of results to get a feel for how the database works. I searched for John Smith in FamilySearch’s “Michigan Births, 1867-1902” and got almost 4,000 results. What I see from scrolling through the results is that the mother’s maiden name usually isn’t included. If I’m trying to narrow down results using mother’s maiden name as a criteria, it isn’t going to work well.

Michigan Births, 1867-1902 on FamilySearch

John Smith in the Michigan Births, 1867-1902 collection on FamilySearch.org. (Click to enlarge.)

I also like to see how first names come back. When I do a search for the first name Thomas, do the results include “Thos.”? If not, I need to do a separate search for that abbreviation (or see if I can search for just Tho or Tho*.)

4. Explore Search Options

Can you use wildcards in your search? It depends. Some databases will allow them; others won’t. Look for a link that explains the search options for that website. You can also just do a search using an asterisk or a question mark and see what happens.

If I’m using a collection that has scanned text, can I limit the results to specific phrases by using quotes around the search terms? Again, it’s a matter of playing with the search to see how the results are.

What’s your favorite strategy for using a database you’ve never used before?

4 Things To Do When Using a Genealogy Database

State Soldiers Homes: A Different Place to Look

After I published “National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers: A Surprisingly Rich Resource,” a reader contacted me and said she couldn’t find her ancestor in the registers. Family lore said that he was in “the soldiers home,” but his name wasn’t in the collections on Ancestry or FamilySearch. Though the National Homes are great resources, they aren’t the only places where disabled veterans lived after the war. There were also state soldiers homes.

State Soldiers Homes vs. National Homes

Main Building, Michigan Soldiers Home

Michigan Soldiers Homes, Grand Rapids

Various states opened their own homes for their disabled and indigent veterans. Many of these opened after the Civil War, like the National Homes did. They functioned in the same way as the National Homes — providing housing and medical care for veterans who didn’t have the means to take care of themselves.

The political reasons for these were numerous. Some states didn’t have a National Home; their veterans would have had to go far from family and friends to get care. Others wanted more direct control over the services provided to their veterans. Southern states had an additional reason for opening their own homes: Confederate veterans couldn’t be admitted to National Homes.

The criteria for entering a state soldiers home varied from state to state. Most had a residency requirement of some sort. Some would allow the admission of veterans’ wives and widows. (They would be housed in different buildings.)

Records for State Soldiers Homes

Three types of records that are especially useful to genealogists are the admission registers, admission applications, and annual reports.

Admission registers were usually kept in ledger books and give a recap of the veteran’s stay(s) in that facility.

Admission applications are just that: applications for admission to the home. They usually involve a form of some sort, but can also include affidavits and supporting documentation of why he or she meets the criteria for admission.

Annual reports can be quite detailed. It isn’t unusual to find:

  • List of residents (or “inmates”) living there during the previous year
  • List of deaths during the previous year
  • Conditions at the home

The 1902 Annual Report of the Indiana State Soldiers’ Home lists everyone who was living in the home:

Indiana Soldiers Home, 1902

It also lists those who died the previous year:

Indiana Soldiers Home, Deaths, 1902

Curious about what they had to eat? They have sample menus:

Indiana Soldiers Home, Menu, 1902

Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know what “pickle pork” is.

Finding State Soldiers Home Records

There are several places to look for the records of state soldiers homes:

Google Books and Internet Archive are especially good for finding annual reports. You’ll have to play with the search terms, but doing a general search of <state soldiers home> such as indiana soldiers home is a good place to start.

Some states, such as Virginia, have put their soldier home records online. (You can search or browse the Robert E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers’ Home Applications for Admission here.)

Also look in the Family History Library catalog to see what might be available on microfilm.

Do you have any ancestors who lived in a state veterans home?

How Quilting Is Like Genealogy

I am a wanna-be quilter. My grandma quilted. My aunt quilted. My mom has been embroidering what will be the top of a quilt. (Can’t wait to see it when it’s done.) Me? I’ve always loved the play of colors and patterns, but I can barely sew. What makes me think I can quilt?

This past winter, I finally broke down and bought a couple of books and some fabric. I then did what I’ve done before when I’ve bought fabric: I looked at it. I read the book. Looked at the fabric some more. Leafed through the book some more.

Quilting and cutting

Quilting Rule #1: No bleeding on the fabric.

Finally, I chose a pattern. (Progress!) Then the big step… Cutting the fabric. Let me just say right now that those rotary cutters are sharp!

I quickly learned Rule #1 of quilting: No bleeding on the fabric.

After I got the pieces cut, I did what I’ve done before: I let the fabric sit there. And sit there. And sit there.

I was paralyzed when it came to sewing the rows together. For months, my quilt looked like this:

Quilt rows

I’m glad I numbered the rows and took this picture. Otherwise, I would never have remembered how I wanted to assemble it. Yes, it sat for so long that I couldn’t remember how it was supposed to go together.

Finally, after some well-intended nagging from my sister, I decided enough was enough. I have to get this top finished. As I was pinning the rows together, it struck me how much genealogy is like quilting.

Variety Is Good

My quilting book talked about how it’s important to have a variety in the fabrics you’re using. Different colors, different values, different scale. It would be a boring quilt if everything was the same.

When we’re researching our ancestors, it’s pretty boring if we only look at the same old records all the time. Throw in different things. Have you relied solely on census records and death certificates? Look at land records. Dig into probate.

Look for Patterns

On one trip to a local quilt shop, I was eyeing a pattern for a table runner. I thought it was too advanced for me. It looked so complicated. My sister looked at it and broke it down. “Look,” she pointed out, “it has four basic blocks. You can see how they fit together.” She was right. It looked almost like chaos, but after you saw the pattern, you saw that it repeated itself.

Our ancestors are the same. If we look at everything all at once, it can look like a jumbled mess. But once we study them and see how they associate with the people around them, we can see where the patterns repeat. Those neighbors near them in the 1880 census? I bet some of them are the same neighbors in 1870, even if the ancestor is living in the different place. (People move together.)

Accept Imperfections

My quilt isn’t going to win any ribbons at the state fair — and that’s ok. i worked on it. It’s my creation. It is what it is.

My family tree is the same way. There are all kinds of imperfections in it. I’m certain that I have some wrong limbs on the tree. I’m also certain that my ancestors themselves have imperfections. I have to accept that fact and take them for who they are.

Strive for Improvement

Though I accept my quilt for what it is — imperfect — that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get better. I’m going to learn and practice more. (I will get better at cutting!) I will stretch myself and my skills. (Next stop: half-square triangles!)

Genealogy, too, calls me to improve. Skills like reading old handwriting only improve with practice. There is always something new to learn, whether it’s a new record group, a new repository, or a new way of presenting your findings. It’s challenging and exciting all at the same time.

There Is One Difference

For all the similarities between genealogy and quilting, there is one big difference. Unlike genealogy, you can actually have a finished quilt. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Mine isn’t there yet!)

quilting and genealogy

I got the top pieced together!

National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers: A Surprisingly Rich Resource

In his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Bryan Cranston used a resource that I love: the register from a U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. These records are often overlooked in Civil War research, overshadowed by pension and service records. However, there are clues in these registers that we need to look at.

A History of the National Homes

The Civil War left countless men with injuries — physical, mental, emotional — that rendered them unable to live the life they had before the war. To care for these men (specifically, those who fought for the Union), Congress authorized the National Homes of Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1865. (They were originally called the National Asylums; “Asylum” was changed to “Home” in 1873.) Union veterans who could prove their disability were related to their service were eligible for admission. The requirements were loosened over time to allow veterans from other wars and those whose disabilities were not service-related.

Admission to the Homes were voluntary and veterans could choose which Home they wanted. Some opted for one in warmer areas, such as the Pacific Branch near Los Angeles. Some chose a home near he had children living. (Always research all of the children!)

The National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers included:

  • Eastern Branch, Togus Springs, Maine
  • Central Branch, Dayton, Ohio
  • Northwestern Branch, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Southern Branch, Hampton, Virginia
  • Western Branch, Leavenworth, Kansas
  • Pacific Branch, Sawtelle, California
  • Marion Branch, Marion, Indiana
  • Danville Branch, Danville, Illinois
  • Mountain Branch, Johnson City, Tennessee
  • Battle Mountain Sanitarium, Hot Springs, South Dakota
  • Bath Branch, Bath, New York
  • Roseburg Branch, Roseburg, Oregon
  • St. Petersburg Home, St. Petersburg, Florida
  • Biloxi Home, Biloxi, Mississippi
  • Tuskegee Home, Tuskegee, Alabama

The Records

The records that family historians will get the most out of are the registers. Here’s the entry for Joseph H. Cranston, Bryan Cranston’s great-great-grandfather:

Joseph H Cranston, Central Branch, U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Dayton, Ohio

Joseph H. Cranston, “United States National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-21047-1681-71?cc=1916230 : accessed 25 August 2015), Dayton, Ohio > Register no. 10500-11999 > image 612 of 777; citing NARA microfilm publication T1749 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). Click to enlarge.

The Military History section at the top contains a recap of Joseph’s military service, including three different regiments that he served in during the Civil War. It also lists “varicose veins” as the kind of disability he had.


The Domestic History section is where we can find some good biographical details, which is certainly the case with Joseph Cranston. Here’s the first part of that section:


We learn his birthplace as County Armagh, Ireland. He was age 57 when he was admitted. After he left the service, he lived in Fostoria, Ohio and was a carpenter. The right-hand part of this section gives even more clues:


He claimed to be single. He lists his friend Nathan Hatfield of Fostoria as his nearest relative. (Joseph’s son would probably disagree with that distinction.)

The Home History section is where the National Home would list when and where the veteran was admitted. It isn’t unusual to find a veteran staying for short periods of time over several years or moving to a different home. Joseph, however, was admitted to the Central Branch Home in Dayton on 1 September 1883 and there he stayed.


The right-hand portion tells about Joseph’s death:


He died 4 March 1889 from inhaling gas. He’s buried in section H3, grave 2.

The General Remarks section can contain all sorts of comments about the veteran. Here’s what Joseph Cranston’s record has:


“Mar. 8th 1889. Appraised Personal Effects $0.25”

Something not in Joseph Cranston’s record is his physical description. This section was added to later registers.

Finding These Records

The registers of most of the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers are available on FamilySearch and on Ancestry. Some of the homes in these collections also have burial and/or death records. Note: neither site has the registers of the St. Petersburg, Biloxi, or Tuskegee homes. You will need to contact the National Archives for those records.

Did Great-Grandpa Grow Hemp?

Oh, the things we can find out about our ancestors. Think your ancestor was just growing corn, wheat, and cotton? He might have been growing hemp, too. We can find out using something called the Agricultural Schedule.

What Is the Agricultural Schedule?

In certain U.S. federal censuses, there were additional schedules created in addition to the ones that list the person’s name, age, birthplace, etc. (the population schedules). In 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880, there was also an Agricultural Schedule taken. (The states that had an 1885 special federal census had a agricultural schedule, too.)

Unlike the Population Schedule, which gives us lots of biographical detail, the Agricultural Schedules focus on the farm. How many acres was it? How much was it worth? What did they raise? It’s a fascinating glimpse into the lives of our farmer ancestors (of which I have a wagonload).

About That Hemp

The Agricultural Schedules didn’t ask just about corn, wheat, and cotton. It asked about all sorts of different crops, including hemp:

  • In 1850, it separated “dew rotted” and “water rotted” into different categories
  • In 1860, it differentiated between “dew rotted,” “water rotted,” and “other prepared” hemp
  • In 1870, all hemp was listed together
  • In 1880, all hemp was listed together and the number of acres devoted to it was also listed

Michael Weaver, Hemp Grower

Michael Weaver lived in Washington Township, Licking County, Ohio in 1850. The 1850 census (the Population Schedule) lists him as a farmer. What that schedule doesn’t tell us is that he was the largest hemp grower in Licking County.

When we look at the Agricultural Schedule for 1850, we find out that Michael had livestock; he grew wheat, corn, and oats; he produced wool and butter; and he had 40 tons of dew rotted hemp.

Michael Weaver (line 9), 1850 Agricultural Schedule, Washington Township, Licking County, Ohio. Image from Ancestry.com

Michael Weaver (line 9), 1850 Agricultural Schedule, Washington Township, Licking County, Ohio. Image from Ancestry.com. (Click to enlarge.)

The Implications of This

This could possibly get some family members more interested in their family history. Imagine the look on some faces when you casually drop in conversation that great-grandpa grew tons of hemp…

For full effect, let that statement sink in before you go on to explain that hemp was used for making ropes and paper and that great-grandpa probably wasn’t a stoner.

Finding and Using Agricultural Schedules

Some of the Agricultural Schedules have been digitized and put online. Some are on Ancestry in their collection “Selected U.S. Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880.” Be sure to read the collection’s description to get the list of states included! Also, use the browse feature on the right-hand side to see if the Agriculture Schedule for that state is included. (For example, the only non-population schedules in this collection for Pennsylvania are the Social Statistics Schedules.) These are indexed.

FamilySearch has digitized images for Illinois and Iowa. Both of these are currently un-indexed. However, people are listed in the same order they are in the population schedules. My suggestion is to find your person first in the “regular” census, then it’s a matter of browsing that same township in the Agricultural Schedule.

If the state you’re interested in isn’t online yet, don’t despair. Many of these schedules are on microfilm. Check with the state historical society, state, archive, and state library to see if they have a copy. If you happen to be planning a trip to the Allen County Public Library, they have many of them on microfilm. (Take a look at their Microtext Catalog under the “Census Records” and then select “Agriculture” as the type.)

The 1850 through 1870 schedules span two pages. Be sure to look at the second page! 

I haven’t found any hemp growers in my family (yet), but I marvel at the detail in these schedules. Have you found anything neat in the Agricultural Schedules?


Library Websites for Genealogy: More Than Just the Catalog

library booksWhen was the last time you visited a public library for your genealogy research?

Think about your answer. Did you think of a time when you walked through their doors? That’s good, but if you think about libraries only as a brick-and-mortar resource for your genealogy, you’re missing a lot. There is a lot more to public library websites than just an online catalog.

Great Things in Small Packages

It’s easy to get excited about websites with billions of records. The more records, the more likely you’ll find something, right?

Honestly, I don’t care how big the database is as long as it has something I need. That’s the cool thing about public library databases. They tend to be focused on a particular area or subject. They might not have the breadth of the big websites, but they take a deeper dive. They uncover resources that are too small or too esoteric to end up on a large commercial site.

Not Just the Big Libraries

When you think about public libraries with great genealogy collections, you probably think about The Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana and the Clayton Library Center in Houston, Texas. They have two of the largest genealogy collections in the U.S. If any library is going to have online databases, it would be them… and they do.

But they aren’t the only public libraries with cool things for us to explore online. Libraries of all sizes are giving us easier access to the materials in their collections. Consider these:

None of those are what you would call huge libraries, but they have great resources that we can use from wherever we connect to the Internet.

Finding the Library and the Genealogy It Has Online

Your favorite search engine can find public libraries quite handily. The challenge is that you might not find all of the ones in the area. In my county, there are 8 different public library systems — and not all of them have the name of their town in it. 

When I want to explore public libraries for an area where my ancestors lived, I look at the website of the county genealogical society and the county’s GenWeb page. They usually have links to the libraries in their county.

Once you find a library you’re interested in, you might need to be creative in looking for its online genealogy resources. Look not only for links to “Genealogy” and “Local History,” but also things like “Resources,” “Research,” “Community,” “Digital Library,” or “Digital Memory.”

Visit Virtually

Going to a library’s website before a visit is an important step in having a successful research trip. But we should also explore these sites even when we aren’t planning on walking through their (physical) doors. We should incorporate public library websites into all of our genealogy research.

What cool things have you found on public library websites?

Library websites for genealogy

Is It Time to Let Go of the Internet in Genealogy?

I began exploring genealogy at the end of the B.I. era — Before Internet. I had a computer, but its horsepower was roughly equal to a pocket calculator. As for doing anything “online” — there were a handful of usegroups and CompuServe forums where genealogists would talk shop, but that was about it.

To do any major research, you had to either go somewhere like a library, archive, or courthouse. Or — brace yourself — write a letter. On paper. In an envelope. With a stamp.

Databases? We didn’t have no stinkin’ databases. If we wanted to search the census, we had to do it on microfilm, which we wound by hand…. both ways.

If you’ve been doing genealogy since B.I., you have a certain appreciation for how hard it used to be. We are truly amazed at how much is available right at our fingertips any time of day.

The Internet is everywhere and I carry it with me in my purse.

Kids and Genealogists Today

A few years ago, my daughter was fascinated — and confused — by an old rotary phone at her grandparents’ house. (“How do you punch in the phone number?”) Print encyclopedias are an alien concept to teenagers. (Don’t believe me? Watch them react to a set of the World Book Encyclopedia.) We can’t blame them for their reaction — they’ve never had to use a rotary phone or a set of encyclopedias.

It’s the same with genealogy. People who came into this pursuit after the advent of the Internet are accustomed to it. They’re used to being able to look up things in their bunny slippers at 3am. Having to use microfilm to look up the census? That is so 1990s. (Consider this for a moment: 1990 was 25 years ago.)

The Color TV

25 inch color television

Newark (Ohio) Advocate, 21 December 1973. Clipping available on Newspapers.com.

The first televisions were black and white. As technology changed and television could be broadcast in color (and TVs could display it), televisions started to be segmented between “TVs” and “color TVs.” Television shows would even announce at the beginning “Broadcast in color!”

As color TVs took over the market, they eventually just became “TVs.” There was no need to differentiate between color and black & white because they were all color. Ads today tout the quality of the color, the resolution, and the brightness of the color — but not the fact that it is color. It is assumed.

As for the TV shows, other than a vintage rerun, when was the last time you saw a show start with the announcement that it was being broadcast “in color”?

Genealogy “on the Internet”

Call me crazy, but I don’t think the Internet is a passing fad. Nor it is “cutting edge” technology. It isn’t even new.

So why are so many organizations — societies, libraries, archives — offering programs like “Genealogy on the Internet”? Considering the pervasiveness of the Internet and the length of time it’s been around, doesn’t that sound a bit dated? Doesn’t that sound a bit like the old TV shows being “in color”? (I’m having a hard time imagining “Up next: Game of Thrones — in color!!”)

A Change of Semantics

I could be wrong, but I feel fairly confident that when microfilm came into being, people didn’t say they were doing “microfilm genealogy.”

In today’s world where societies, libraries, and archives are trying to reach more people and get them in the door (physically or virtually), could using the title “How to Do Genealogy on the Internet” be off-putting to newer genealogists? Are they saying to themselves, “Duh. How else would you do genealogy?” Could it be better to instead use titles like “How to Do Genealogy”?

That doesn’t mean that we can’t have classes about the Internet and the great resources it offers. But why can’t we put the emphasis on what the person will discover, rather than the format?

For example, I have a presentation about researching Civil War ancestors. (Actually, I have a few.) I include websites and databases, but those aren’t segregated into “Now we’ll talk about the online sources.” The focus is on what they want to find and then highlighting the resource — online and/or offline — that will help them find it.

It also doesn’t mean that we can’t give Web-specific education. Every website has its ins-and-outs and its insider tricks. That education needs to be available. In those cases, it would be quite appropriate to title it along the lines of “Using <x>.com for your Genealogy” or “How to Search Better.”

It Isn’t All Online, But That’s Not the Point

I’ve spent a good part of my career working with various organizations and their online presence. In grad school, I concentrated on digital preservation and curation. I probably spend way too much time in front of a computer.

But for as much as I love the Internet and what it offers, I am the first to state that it isn’t all online.

However, that’s beside the point. Considering how much is online, how many people use the Internet, and how easy it is to access online data, why do we treat “online” genealogy as something different than just “genealogy”? We have to evaluate the source regardless of where we found it — online or offline.

Is It Time to Let Go of the Internet?

What I would like the community to consider is how we look to newcomers when we offer general “Genealogy on the Internet” classes or “Online Genealogy” tracks at our conferences. In an effort to look like we’re “with it” when it comes to technology, are we actually making ourselves look like a 1973 color tv? Can we just teach people about genealogy, regardless of where the resources reside?


Why You Can’t Find a Death Record (and Some Things That Might Help)

Your ancestor’s death record is one of those things that you’re supposed to have. Let’s face it — death is one event that is certain to take place at some point. Plus, death records are usually filled will all sorts of genealogical goodness. But sometimes there’s that ancestor who just doesn’t cooperate. You’ve looked and looked, but the record cannot be found. Why can’t you find that death record? Here are some possible reasons, plus some things you can do about it.

1. The Area Didn’t Keep Death Records When Your Ancestor Died

Not every place started keeping civil death records at the same time. Vermont started keeping civil vital records (including deaths) around 1760. Ohio didn’t start until 1867. Indiana began in 1882.

While there’s nothing you can do about a record that was never created, there are some workarounds. Think about why you wanted the record and consider some substitutes.

2. He Didn’t Die Where You Think He Did

Ancestors can be so inconsiderate sometimes. Even though he lived in a certain place his entire life, that doesn’t mean that’s where he died. Ask yourself, “Have I confirmed where he died?”

Rev. Naham Hines, Maple Grove Cemetery, Licking County, Ohio

Rev. Naham Hines, Maple Grove Cemetery, Licking County, Ohio

There are other sources that can give the place of death. Obituaries are a great source for this. If you know where he’s buried, look at the cemetery records and even his tombstone. Naham Hines is buried in Licking County, Ohio, but according to his tombstone, he died in Brooklyn, New York. That would explain why you can’t find a death record for him in Ohio.

If your ancestor was in the military, especially in the Civil War or later, take a look at his pension. There is often a statement about where he died.

If all else fails, start tracing his children. He may have moved to be with one of them or was visiting when he died.

3. She’s Using a Different Name

Researching female ancestors can be challenging since their surnames change at each marriage. That’s hard enough, but what I’m talking about is that she might not be listed with her first name. Instead, her death record might be listed as “Mrs. John Smith,” rather than as Mary Smith. Try searching using his first name instead of hers.

4. He’s Using Initials

For some reason, there are men who seem to keep using their initials rather than their full names. This can trip us up when we do an online search. While some databases will match “W. H. Skinner” if you search for “William Henry Skinner,” many (I’d say most) will not. Try searching with his initials (first initial only and again adding his middle initial) instead of his full name.

5. He’s Using a Nickname or a Middle Name

Names are more fluid than we generally think. Though your ancestor might have been names William Henry Skinner, he might show up in the record as Henry Skinner. Search with his middle name instead of his “real” first name.

Nicknames are troublesome, especially for women. While Williams generally aren’t listed as “Bill” on their death records (though it does happen sometimes), it isn’t unusual at all for women to be listed with a nickname or a diminutive form of their name. Search for Molly or Polly for Mary; Patsy for Martha; or Peggy for Margaret. (USGenWeb has a handy guide for nicknames.)

Don’t let those ancestors keep hiding from you. If you’re not finding their death record, consider some of these strategies to discover them. How have you uncovered some hard-to-find death records?

Why you can't find a death record

A Picture Isn’t an Object


My daughter recently shared this quote by Jim Flannigan with me. It struck a chord with me as a family historian. Having a photograph taken back in the day truly was an event! But more than that, those family pictures are a time machine of sorts. They transport us to that moment, captured by light and lens.

“A picture is not an object. A picture is an event.” Thank you, Jim Flannigan.

How to Find Genealogy Information When a Record Doesn’t Exist

The other day, I was helping someone with his genealogy research in Indiana. He had what seemed to be a simple question. He was trying to find a birth record of his ancestor who was born there around 1840. Just one problem: Indiana didn’t keep civil birth records back in 1840. So how do you find genealogy information when the record doesn’t even exist?

Stop Focusing on the Record

Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders.

Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders.

Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders. We get hyper-focused on finding that birth, marriage, or death record. We do need to make diligent searches and consider various places where the record might be.

For example: the state of Virginia claimed to not have my grandmother’s birth certificate. Imagine my surprise when my dad gave me a copy along with some of Grandma’s papers. (“Oh, you’ve needed that?”) I should have looked through her papers sooner.

(If you’re certain that a death record should exist, but you’re not finding it, consider some of the strategies I’ve outlined here.)

But what do we do when the record truly doesn’t exist? What do we do about an 1840 birth in Indiana, when the state didn’t start keeping birth records until 1882?

That’s when we need to take off the blinders. Stop focusing on that record and look around at other resources that are available.

Start Looking for the Information

Think about why you want that record you’re looking for. There are two main reasons to look for your ancestor’s birth record:

  • You want to document his or her date and place of birth
  • You want to identify his or her parents

Ask yourself what other records might contain the information you’re looking for. The person I was helping said that he wanted to identify the parents. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Baptism record
  • Family Bible
  • Probate (looking at the people he was living with in 1850)
  • Civil War pension (he was a prime age to have served)
  • County histories published during his lifetime
  • Death record
  • Obituary

Of course, the accuracy of some of those records are are going to be dependent on the knowledge of the informant. (Did the informant on the death certificate really know the names of the parents or was that just his best guess?)

Finding the Information: Let Your Goal Be Your Guide

Instead of being disappointed or frustrated when we can’t find a specific record, let your goal be your guide. Think about what it is you want to use that record for and then consider what other types of records would have that same information.

What “other” records have you used when the record you originally wanted didn’t exist?

How to find genealogy information when a record doesn't exist