Monday, September 29, 2008

My Guide to Internet Genealogy, Vol. 1

So, I know everyone has an obligatory "guide" on their page that I bet 90% of the people that go to their site ignore/miss it (or am I the only one?) and chances are that you'll ignore this too, but I'm going to go ahead and make one for two reasons. Reason one is that doing this helps me remember all the tricks I've picked up over the years and reason two is that the tricks I've picked up are good ones that get results, so I thought I put them out there for you to use if you want and ignore if you'd rather.
But first, I'm sentimental so bear with me as I take a walk down memory lane... When I first started doing internet genealogy it was in the early stages and there wasn't much beyond GenWeb, Ancestry and FamilySearch. I can remember going onto the query pages of GenWeb counties and you could count on one hand the number of queries that were posted. Now, I have to search through VOLUMES of archived queries just to get back to those original ones. I also remember looking-up trees on Ancestry and being lucky if I got a hit, now I expect to get at least ten when I go one there. The industry certainly has boomed over the years and mostly for the good. You're welcome to disagree with me, but in the beginning there wasn't the sense of community amongst internet genealogists that there is now, I think. A few people went on message boards or the query pages and they'd be lucky if anyone saw their post, I'm happy to say that now things have done a 360 and it is common to get a two response minimum. This is another point where you are welcome to disagree with me (and you probably will), but in the beginning internet genealogy didn't have the legitimacy that it has (in some circles) now. It was the venue of choice for "hack genealogists" or "armchair researchers," this according to the die hards that believe that the information isn't real unless you can hold it in your hands. Well, newsflash, its called a printer! I know that isn't what they meant, but I DO put a good amount of stock into internet genealogy (I'll admit that 90% of my research is done in front of my computer) and I think it is legitimate, with some caveats I'll go into below.

Tricks

FamilySearch.org: The LDS site is and has always really been Ancestry's only competition and for good reason, FamilySearch is good (and with the development of FamilySearchLabs, I would say the Church has eclipsed Ancestry in terms of quality internet genealogy). One problem with the search engine is that you can't localize last name only searches nor can you do first name only searches. To get around this I've found a few tricks to get around these limitations. First, go ahead and do the non-localized surname search IF the name you are researching is pretty rare, like Wellons, Croad or Dacci. Be careful though because Family Search doesn't do exact searches so names that you think are rare, like Tock, will come up with THOUSANDS of results including Tuck, Tack, Tooke, and any other variation they can find. Another thing you can do is ENTER WHAT YOU KNOW! If you know that your ancestor, John Doe was the son of Jonathan Doe and Jane Smith but you want to find out who John's siblings were go ahead and enter John and his parents and if you find them note where they lived (if you are really lucky an ancestral file or pedigree will give the siblings names, but for this let's assume you weren't that lucky). If John was born in San Francisco, then search other sites (the US census records are very helpful for this and some years can be viewed for free through the FamilySearLabs site) for a Doe family in San Francisco. Say that you find a census and it says that John had a sister named Mary and that the family was living in Oakland (just across the bay from San Francisco). Well, then go back to FamilySearch and look to see if there were any Mary Does born in either San Francisco or Oakland (you can't get that localized on FamilySearch, but you can type in Mary Doe and her parents Jonathan and Jane Smith Doe in California and then give a birth year (you can skip this if it is a rare name, if not use the "about" birth date from the census and chose the +/- 5 years option where it asks if you'd like an exact year search). Once you find a name that fits your parameters, search some more and validate it with sources with possible. Then, if you're lucky, a search of the message boards or query pages on other sites will connect you with Mary's relatives and you can exchange data and meet new family members!
Genealogy.com: No offense, but this site is rubbish beyond its GenForum and will try to charge you for anything and everything and a lot of the time the info can be found on FamilySearch or Rootsweb (the free sister site of Ancestry). FYI: Genealogy.com is also owned by TGN (along with Ancestry and a host of other genealogy sites), I just thought that was something worth sharing... So here is my trick for Genealogy.com: AVOID IT!
Ancestry.com: These tricks are for the old search (I have only tried the new search a few times and frankly, it is just too dreadful for me to want to reuse. Although, the one and only nice feature of the new search is the image preview so if you are looking for newspaper articles, excerpts from books or pictures, you might want to brave trying the mess that is the new search). The old search is pretty golden, I think, with a few exceptions. Whereas FamilySearch was easier to search using obscure last names, Ancestry is far more difficult (ya think they planned it that way?). Searching for a name like vonAllmen on FamilySearch yields a fair amount of quality hits, but a search of the name on Ancestry gives you JUST vonAllmen records and they are a little sparse. What do you do if your vonAllmens had their name butchered, or should I say "Anglicanized?" For instance my vonAllmens changed their name (for the most part) to Allmen when they came to this country and the census taker for some of those years must have had a hard time spelling or understanding their thick accents because they come up as Ollman, Almann, Allman, and Allmon, among others, in various records. My saving grace and the only reason I've been able to find them? I knew they lived in Evansville, Indiana and I knew their first names. So, I diligently looked for my family WITHOUT their last name in various records. The head of the family was Christian and he was married to Barbara and I had birth years for them so I looked for them using loose birth years (like in the FamilySearch example above). Example: Christian in Vanderburgh co., Indiana born bet. 1810 and 1820. This usually works well enough to find the person you are looking for, but what to do if that doesn't work? Well, you can always wildcard your search. By doing this I can type one of two things. First things I could do would be the ? search, say I am looking for my Petersen family but their name has probably been changed so I can do Peters?n which means I'd get Peterson and Petersen hits. Second thing I could try, and this works best for given names, would be to search with Cro* if I wanted to look for Croads.

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