Genealogy Search Tips for Ancestors’ Names: Less Is More

Beginning genealogists sometimes write us and say: “I put in the correct information for my search—full name including middle name, birth date, last known place of residence, etc.—everything I know about my ancestor, and yet I found no matching records. I did this search for a few other ancestors after I was told that there was no record of death. I have seen these names on the Social Security Death Index before. How come I can’t find that information now?”

Be flexible in your ancestor name search

What you want to do is limit your family searches to the basic, essential information, typing in just enough to find your target ancestor without getting back too many hits.

For example, your ancestor’s full name might have been John Henry Thompson—but the editors of the newspaper simply called him “Bif Thompson,” the name he was known by in the community for the past 30 years.

The Social Security Death Index has records for 4,266 persons with the first name “Buddy,” 25,947 records with the first name “Tommy,” and one record for a person named “Bif.”

Now Bif, Buddy and Tommy just might be the first name on their birth certificates, but it is more likely that these are a nickname or the diminutive form of their formal name (for example, “Tommy” for “Thomas.”)

When these people’s names are indexed there is no way to know that “Bif Thompson,” for example, was actually “John Henry Thompson.”

There are over 1.3 billion names in GenealogyBank, and we index them exactly as the names appeared in the original record. So you want to be flexible in how you search for a name.

Search using only your ancestor’s surname, limited by date range if necessary

Most surnames are unique. You will learn by genealogy research experience if a search using only a surname will generate too many hits. If it does, then limit your search by a range of years—for example: 1950–1975. That will usually enable you to pull up just enough search result hits so that you can locate your target ancestor.

picture of the GenealogyBank search form for surname "Starbird" between the years 1950-1975

GenealogyBank search form for surname “Starbird” between the years 1950-1975

By searching for all persons surnamed Starbird from 1950–1975, you will then find all of those records regardless of whether the editor included their first name, middle name, initials, or nicknames.

Give the surname search, limited by date ranges, a try.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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