Is Ancestry Missing Your Ancestors?

It’s so frustrating to look for a record on Ancestry — a record that you just KNOW exists — and you can’t find it. No matter how many ways you try spelling the name, you just can’t find it.

The issue might not be in how you’re searching. Here’s how to tell whether or Ancestry has the record that you’re looking for in your genealogy.

You can listen to the audio:

Or watch the video (or scroll below to keep reading):

I see it happen all the time — people will do a search on Ancestry, not get the results they expect, and then one of two things happens. They will either get frustrated with themselves — “I must be searching wrong!” — or they will make the wrong conclusion about their ancestor. “I didn’t find her marriage record where I expected, so she must have gotten married somewhere else.”

It’s true that our ancestors sometimes did things like run off to another place to get married…. And sometimes we do need to try different search strategies. But one of the biggest reasons that your search results are turning up a big fat zero is that Ancestry doesn’t have the record.

Ancestry doesn’t have every record. They don’t even have everything that’s online.

The problem is that it isn’t always obvious what Ancestry doesn’t have, especially if you’ve been doing searches from the main search page.

So how can you tell when it’s a matter of needing to search differently versus Ancestry not having the records that you need? There are two places you want to look.

The Ancestry Card Catalog

Ancestry card catalog menuThe first is Ancestry’s Card Catalog. (Yes, they’re a website. They still call it the Card Catalog, though.) This will let you know exactly what collections Ancestry has for a certain location, so you can see whether or not they have collections that cover what you’re looking for.

You get to the Card Catalog by clicking on Search at the top of the page on Ancestry, then clicking “Card Catalog.” How Ancestry names its collections can help us see what collections are specific for that location, because the title includes the place name.

What if we’re trying to find a death certificate for an ancestor who died in Missouri in 1964? We can go into the Card Catalog, enter Missouri in the title field, and click Search. Now we get a list of all of Ancestry’s collections that have “Missouri” in the title. If we want, we can use the filters on the lefthand side of the page to focus the list further by category and/or date.

Scrolling through the list of collections, we can see that Ancestry has these two collections: “Missouri, U.S., Death Certificates, 1910-1962” and “Missouri, U.S., Death Records, 1968-2015.” So, while other collections might have information about the person’s burial or maybe their obituary, Ancestry has a gap in their coverage of Missouri death certificates; unfortunately, that death in 1964 falls in that gap.

Your ancestor very well could have died in Missouri in 1964, but no matter how you search, you’re not going to find his or her death certificate on Ancestry.

A Surprising Way to Use Ancestry’s “Browse This Collection” Feature

The Card Catalog is useful, but it isn’t the only place to check what Ancestry doesn’t have.

Let’s switch up our research and now we’re looking for the death record of an ancestor who died in Adair County, Missouri in 1905. Using the Card Catalog, we see there’s a collection called, “Missouri, U.S., Death Records, 1850-1931.” Sounds promising!

But doing a search, we’re not finding what we’re looking for. When you’re on a collection page on Ancestry, scroll below the search form; there’s sometimes an “About” section that gives more information about the collection. But when the collection has images, you can get an even better idea what’s in the collection by using the Browse feature.

Ancestry browse this collection menu
Using the “Browse this collection,” we see that this collection doesn’t include any county beginning with A.

If you click on the “County” dropdown, you might be surprised that the first county listed is “Barry.” That means this collection doesn’t have anything for Adair County (or any other “A” county).

What about Butler County? If you choose Butler County, you’ll see that the collection only includes 1883-1893 — much less coverage than the 1850-1931 in the collection title!

So why is collection called “Missouri, U.S., Death Records, 1850-1931”? Because somewhere in the collection there is at least one record that dates to 1850 and at least one that dates to 1931. Ancestry isn’t the only website to name their databases this way. In fact, it isn’t unheard of for archives to label a collection this way, though most of them will have a note saying what years the bulk of the collection is.

Save Yourself Some Genealogical Frustration

There are times when we do need to switch up our searches — but it doesn’t matter how you search if the website doesn’t have the record to begin with! Save yourself some frustration in your research and explore what Ancestry doesn’t have.


Posted: October 24, 2021.

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      • It’s important to try different search strategies, including using wildcards (like *) which stand in place of multiple letters.

        • And if I find my ancestor via wildcards, I don’t hesitate to correct Ancestry when I have the option. (One example being the 1880 census where my Lamburth relatives were listed as Danbirth. On viewing the image, it was easy to understand why someone who didn’t know the family could interpret the name as Danbirth, but if you knew it was Lamburth, it easily read as Lamburth. SMH.)

  • Thank you for the information. I have had this happen several times and now I know what to do so I don’t keep looking for information that is not there.

  • Amy, I have any done searches that may have been labeled 1880-1920 (example) but when I browse through it, there are newer entries and they just neglected to change the title.
    I enjoy your podcasts very much. I’m just a little bit behind. Thank you, Laura

  • Wow, thank you Amy! I have a brick wall: My 3xgreat grandmother. On all the census returns I have it says she was born in Uxbridge, about 1803, but I have never been able to find any record of this. So I have just been on Ancestry again, and as you suggest, put ‘Uxbridge’ into the search -ZERO results. No wonder I couldn’t find her birth!

  • Sometimes Ancestry does have a record, but the transcription is muddled, misspelled – possibly because a handwritten record was confusing and the transcriber tried guesswork. Have also seen problems in census records when a the agent crossed – say – a twp boundary, but the Ancestry listing is only for the first few entries with no regard for a second, different region. Another source of personal frustration is the absence of O’ (“O-apostrophe) before a surname. Has meant literally hours of searches without success. – Can also be a mistake in the original document. But searching for, say O. (O-period, as a middle initial – frequent problem in my experience) on the off chance that your O’ person will be found is equally time consuming and frustrating.

  • Even when Ancestry has a database like a census, sometimes names just get overlooked. My great-aunts were not listed in Ancestry’s 1881 England census even though I tried various spelling permutations. But, there they were in the census copy that was posted on FindMyPast! So, it can pay to check sources other than Ancestry if you’re hitting a brick wall!

  • I did know some of these strategies but seem to “forget” to use them all. Thanks for the reminders.

  • Thank you, Amy. Ancestry is not the be-all and end-all of genealogy that so many people think it is. And nothing still beats actually going to the place and searching its facilities yourself.