Ancestral Name Searches: 4 Tips for Tracing Surname Spellings

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that ancestral surnames may have been spelled differently in the past—or been completely different altogether—and provides tips for searching for these ancestral name variations.

Earlier this year, I asked some Facebook friends to help with family research on surnames. This type of research can be tricky; some ancestral surnames had spelling variations—or were completely different names.

My friends answered with a range of responses: some reported minor spelling changes in their ancestors’ surnames, while others told of rather dramatic aberrations. After all, who would ever correlate the Bedenbaugh family with the name “Pitebag,” the Cal family with the name “Carroll,” or the Von Der Burg family with the name “Funderburg”!

My Question about Researching Surnames

This was my original Facebook request, with my friends’ replies summarized in the following chart:

I’m looking for ancestral surnames with many alternate spelling variations. For instance, Smith can be spelled Smyth or Smythe. Harrell can be Herrall, Horrall, Herald, etc. Also, looking for names of emigrants that were Americanized. Thanks in advance!

From Surname Variations / Comments
Cindi S. Amick: Emig, Emmick, Emmigh, Amig, Amik
Angela H. Ammons: Amonds, Emmons, Almons, Aman. Ammonds in Germany; Americanized to Ammons.
Jim B. Becherer: My “Becherer” ancestor changed it to Baker, although there are records where he was Becker and his tombstone is Bakar.
Cindi S. Bedenbaugh came from a Pitebag. That’s another one that has always been curious.
Victoria N. Calley, Colley, Collier, Callie, Cally, Colly
Judi C-T. Carroll, Carrell, Corall, Coral, Cal
Marge I. Cilley, Celley, Cealy, Seley, Sealey, Selley, so on, so on
Judy J-L. Cosky: Coskey, Kosky, Koskey, Koski, Koskie, Cuskie, Cusky—came across my ancestral name spelled all these ways on various documents.
Judy J-L. Deegan, Deagan, Dagen, Degan, and Deegen
Cindi S. Dominick, Dominy, Daming, and the oldest variation on this name that I could find: Durnermubhor?
Mary H-S. Ebling, Ebeling, Hebling, Eblinger
Sandy G. Finkenbinder: My grandmother was a Finkenbinder. It started in Germany as Fintboner, Finkboner, Finkbeiner, Finkenbeiner, Finkenbinder.
Cindi S. Fulmer, Folmer, Follmer, Volmer, Vollmer
Mary H-S. Harrell, Harel, Herald, Herrald, Horall, Horrell, Horald
Tammy H. Henney, Heney, Hanney, Hanny, Henny, Heaney, Haney…started as Hennig
Cindi S. Krell, Krelle, Crell, Crelle, Krehl, Kreil, Kreel, Creel, Crehl
Jim B. Langendoerfer: Within the space of two pages, the same census taker for the 1860 Census for Wayne County, PA, listed the four Langendoerfer brothers as: John Longdone, Winesdale (actually Wendell) Langerford, Jacob Longendoff, [and] Nicholas Longendiffer. He probably spoke to each of them on the same day along the same stretch of road. He never realized they were all saying the same name.[Cindi S.] It was a cold day and a little nip helped the census taker make his rounds…lol
Mary H-S. Miesse, Measey, Mease, Mise, Meise, spelled as Mȕsse in Germany
Leanne L. Ouderkerk: Ouderkirk, Oudekerk, Oudekirk, Oderkirk, Odekirk from Holland to New York mid 1600s
Monica C. Peats, Peets, Peetz, Pietz, Peet, Peat, Pyatt, Piatt…
Lisa F. Penny, Penney, Pinny, Pinney
Jessica R. Shultz, Schultz, Shulse, Shultze, Sholtz, Schulse…
Heidi N. Smith can also be an Americanized version of Schmidt, Schmeid, Schmitt, etc.
Mary H-S. Smith, Smyth, Smythe
Tammy H. Sweezey, Sweazy, Sweasey, Swazy, Swazey, Swasey, Sweezy, Swasy. From Germany via France.
Trish W. Von Der Burg family (Funderburg, Funderburgh, Funderburk, etc.)

So Which Surname Spelling Is Correct?

Although some genealogists may disagree, I believe the correct answer is: “most of them!”

Names morph, or change, on documents for a variety of reasons. Obvious reasons include ignorance (simply didn’t know the correct spelling) and sloppiness (typographical and handwriting issues)—but more complex reasons include other considerations.

In general, Old World names (given and last names) are, more often than not, converted from one spelling to another over time. Sometimes this evolves from alphabetical considerations, and other times from pronunciation or Anglicization issues.

Enter Last Name










1) Alphabetical Conversions

Alphabetical conversions occur when a letter from a foreign alphabet doesn’t exist in English—such as ones with accents or umlauts (ȕ). An example from the chart is the name Miesse, which was spelled in Germany as Mȕsse. In 17th and 18th century church and civil records, this name is predominantly recorded with an umlaut, but English-speaking settlers had to convert the ȕ to “i,” “ea” and “ie.”

2) Surname Anglicization for Legal Reasons

Families might deliberately change or Anglicize the spellings of their surnames. Sometimes this occurs in daily practice (not formalized), but at other times during a court filing.

An example in the Sesniak family occurred when the name was legally changed from the traditional Polish spelling of Szczesniak. As my husband Tom explains:

On first try, nobody could pronounce or spell our last name, so my father had it shortened. Uniquely, he kept the same pronunciation by dropping two zs and a c. Although it broke all family tradition and upset the grandparents [who did not join in the court filing], it was the right thing to do. They were rooted to their Polish community, but it was only a small part of America. Although they never lost their ethnic pride, my parents’ family immediately went from being Polish to Polish American.

3) Name Pronunciation Dilemmas

Whenever a surname is pronounced differently from what its written form would suggest, expect to find spelling variations—such as this example from my Irish ancestry.

Our family Bible recorded the name as Hoowee—causing some Fisher family cousins to doubt its authenticity. After visiting Ireland, we discovered that the name is spelled both as Hoowe and Hoowee in records.

photo of the name "Hoowee" spelled in the Mathias Fisher family Bible

Photo: the name “Hoowee” spelled in the Mathias Fisher family Bible. Source: in the possession of Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

Why it was changed, we’ll never know—but after discovering it is often pronounced “Who ee” rather than “How,” my theory is that the version “Hoowee” was chosen because it better reflected the correct pronunciation.

4) Recording Considerations

When examining records, always consider who recorded the information.

Was there an enumerator or interviewer—or did a family member write the information in original handwriting?

If a spelling variation came from a family member, perhaps this person was not very literate. If it came from an enumerator, the name might have been written the way the enumerator heard it (phonetically or otherwise). Or perhaps a spelling was altered to reflect a personal cultural background.

Enumerator name variations are commonly reported by census researchers. (See the Langendoerfer example in the chart.)

Enter Last Name










The Ellis Island Myth

One of the most written-about American experiences is the arrival of immigrants to Ellis Island—but one of the most incorrectly repeated statements is that names were changed (or Anglicized) upon arrival at Ellis Island.

photo of the Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor, c.1904

Photo: Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor, c.1904. Source: Underwood & Underwood; Library of Congress.

This widely repeated myth is easily dispelled by focusing on the steps undertaken when passengers arrived in the port.

During the interview process, immigrants’ names were verified to see that they matched the names recorded on ship manifests, which had been created in foreign, not American, ports. If there were exceptions, it would arise if an immigrant disagreed with the recorded spelling.

(For an in-depth explanation, see the New York Public Library article at www.nypl.org/blog/2013/07/02/name-changes-ellis-island,)

What Are Your Family Spelling Variations?

If you’ve only uncovered 1-2 spelling variations for your family surname, I hope this article will inspire you to find more—and to consider reasons how and why they changed.

Please share your surname spelling examples with us in the comments section.

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You Found That Article Where? Newspaper Search Tips for Genealogists

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan provides some newspaper search tips for genealogists, especially regarding locations.

Typically when we do genealogical research we go straight to the local jurisdiction, which is often at the county level. We get vital records, land deeds, and tax lists on a county level. Although the federal census is conducted nationwide, we can search it on a county or even city level. As genealogists, we tend to narrow our focus down to the smallest jurisdictional unit. This is typically a very effective strategy.

However, this local focus is not always the best approach when searching newspapers.

Search Nationwide First, Then Refine

If you took your local newspaper and organized all the articles in it by the location of the event being reported, you would find that the majority of the news comes from outside of the city, county or even state where the paper was published. This has been true throughout history. When searching for information in newspapers, I begin my searches by looking nationwide. But if I get too many search results, I then narrow my search by using date ranges and specific locations.

Here’s how I approach searching for family history information in newspapers.

  1. First, I begin my search with just the first and last name.
  2. Then I narrow the search by date range if I get too many results.
  3. Once I have searched with this criteria and I am still getting too many results, I narrow further by using the city or state name as a keyword.

It is important to keep in mind that GenealogyBank’s search engine is very specific and will only search for exactly what you type. This helpful feature prevents you from getting too many unrelated results back.

But it also means that you have to be creative in what you enter in the search box. This applies to the names and keywords fields. When I am searching nationwide for an article from San Francisco, California, there are a variety of keywords I could use: California, Calif, CA, San Francisco, San Fran, SF.

Enter Last Name










Newspaper Search Tips

  • Use Quotations for Phrases: Whenever you enter a group of words that you want to find together, such as “San Francisco,” put the group in quotation marks.
  • Start Broad Then Refine: The default setting on GenealogyBank already searches nationwide for you. There is the option to select a state from the map at the bottom of the results page. However, doing so will often eliminate many of the newspaper articles you are looking for. Therefore, I recommend doing a nationwide search first and then, if necessary, using keywords such as the city or state name to narrow your results.
  • Explore Articles from Multiple States: Keep in mind as you look through the search results page that the location listed is the location of the newspaper and not the location of the article. Don’t hesitate to click on any newspaper article that looks like it might be relevant even if its listed location appears to be several states away from where your ancestor lived.
  • Use Keywords: You can add a series of keywords into the “Include Keywords” box. Keep in mind that adding too many keywords all at once may not be an effective research strategy. Add them one at a time until you get down to a reasonable number of results to search, around 100-200.
  • Exclude Keywords: You can also use the “Exclude Keywords” box to narrow results. Let’s say you were searching for a man named Eric Clapton, but you weren’t looking for the musician. Glance through the results and find words that often appear in articles about the musician. These may be things like: album, concert, or guitar. Enter those words into the “Exclude Keywords” box as follows: album OR concert OR guitar. This eliminates articles with those words.

Whom Will You Find?

Some genealogists may think that the person they are looking for was a poor farmer from a small town who would never have made the national news. You would be surprised what articles got picked up and how far away they went! I’ve included several examples in this Blog article to prove this point. Today it is less likely that small town news will travel nationwide, but the further back in history you go the more likely it is that local news could be published in distant newspapers.

Where’s My Ancestor in the News?

Keep in mind that local news articles can be published in any newspaper in the nation, in places where you might not logically think to look. Your ancestor may not have ever visited the area where the news was published. They may not have any friends or relatives residing in that location. Newspapers subscribed to other papers and published their articles if they thought the news would be interesting to their own readers. There were no copyright laws to stop them from republishing word for word—or even from embellishing—what was originally published elsewhere. Newspaper editors would also select news articles from other papers simply because they fit the space their paper had available.

Newspapers’ Historical Role in Daily Life

In the past, newspapers were the main form of mass communication, predating other social media like radio, TV, Facebook and Twitter. When families moved from one place to another, they would often keep their subscription to their hometown newspaper. If many people migrated from a certain location, the local paper in their new area would regularly run articles from their place of origin in order to cater to those readers.

Reading the newspaper and talking over the events was a highlight of a community’s week. Before TV, this was a common form of entertainment. Human nature is always looking for new and exciting experiences. This fact keep editors busy scouring other papers for information to republish. For genealogy researchers, this gives us multiple opportunities to find the articles we are searching for, even if the original newspaper’s archives no longer exist!

Enter Last Name










Genealogical Gold in Republished Articles

Here is a great example of that. I once had a genealogist ask for help finding a photograph of one of her relatives that had appeared in the local newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She had looked through GenealogyBank’s collection of Pennsylvania newspapers and hadn’t been able to find the photo. I started by using just her ancestor’s last name because it was uncommon. I did not put any additional information in the search box. We found several copies of the photograph that had been published in newspapers all across the nation (Illinois, Massachusetts, Tennessee and North Carolina) and she was able to select the best copy for her records.

Here is a photo of her ancestor Mary Tauschman helping a pet duck cross the road, published in a Massachusetts newspaper.

photo of crossing guard Mary Tauschman, Springfield Union newspaper photograph 27 April 1969

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 27 April 1969, page 2

Searching Articles across U.S. States

Another time, I helped a genealogist who was searching for a report of her relative’s car accident in Forth Worth, Texas. We were able to find the article all the way up in a Massachusetts newspaper!

Her ancestor’s accident was indeed horrible—thank goodness for the quick action by her husband!

Swift Kick by Husband Saves Lady Driver's (Idell Schults) Life, Boston Record American newspaper article 13 December 1961

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 December 1961, page 16

Here is another example. A large Mississippi family is photographed and named individually, but the photo appears in a Louisiana newspaper.

photo of the large family of William and Catherine Smith, Times-Picayune newspaper photograph 12 March 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 March 1922, page 39

There is also the example I gave in a previous GenealogyBank Blog post about the death notice of my ancestor Zachariah Nicholson (see: Genealogy Records: A History of Regional Coverage in the U.S.). There is no reason this farmer’s death in Indiana would appear in a Michigan newspaper—yet here it is.

death notice for Zachariah Nicholson, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 19 January 1895

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 19 January 1895, page 7

Here is one more example: an announcement for a marriage in Omaha City, Nebraska, that is appearing in a Georgia newspaper.

Spilman-Gaylord wedding announcement, Marietta Journal newspaper article 9 September 1880

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 9 September 1880, page 3

Genealogy Search Tip: Start your newspaper search without a location, searching nationwide because you never know what paper published an article about your ancestor. If you get too many search results, start narrowing your search by using the state or city name as a keyword.

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5 Time-Saving Computer Keyboard Shortcuts for Busy Genealogists

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary presents some of the best keyboard shortcuts that save time when you’re doing online genealogy research.

If you’ve been staying indoors to escape the bitter cold of this season’s Polar Vortex, chances are you’ve been surfing the Web on that ever-popular ancestor hunt that we genealogists enjoy so much.

Many of you are accomplished family searchers and know your way around a computer keyboard and the Internet—but I’ve observed that some family historians are unfamiliar with basic Mac and PC desktop keyboard shortcuts that can save you time and effort as you scour the web searching for your ancestors.

Let’s talk about that, as some of the more overlooked keyboard shortcuts are easy to do!

photo of a wireless keyboard for an Apple computer

Photo: Apple wireless keyboard. Credit: Wikipedia.

1)      Easy Keyboard Scrolling

On some computer keyboards, the Page Up and Page Down arrow keys are not conveniently located, so I’d like to present an alternate method.

To scroll down a webpage easily, press the Spacebar.

To scroll up a webpage, hold the Shift key and then press the Spacebar. It’s easy!

Scroll down:

  • Spacebar

Scroll up:

  • Shift and Spacebar

Tip: The Spacebar tricks save time by not having to take your hand off the keyboard.

2)      Easy Screen Zooming

Ever find yourself squinting at a tiny image on a webpage, such as a tombstone (like this one from my family collection)?

photo of a tombstone

Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak

If so, then zoom in and out with your computer screen to attain the best viewing size.

Hold the Control key (aka “Ctrl” on a PC) and tap the Plus (+), Minus (-) or Zero (0) keys.

On an Apple Mac, do the same, but utilize the Command key (aka “Cmd” or “⌘”).

One sequence zooms in, one zooms out, and the last one returns the image to the original viewing size.

Zoom in:

  • [PC] Ctrl and Plus (Ctrl +)
  • [Apple] Command and Plus (⌘ +)

Zoom out:

  • [PC] Ctrl and Minus (Ctrl -)
  • [Apple] Command and Minus (⌘ -)

Original size:

  • [PC] Ctrl and Zero (Ctrl 0)
  • [Apple] Command and Zero (⌘ 0)

Tip: On a laptop keyboard, you probably do not have to hold the Shift key to access the Minus and Plus keys when doing this shortcut, despite them being located above the hyphen (-) and equal (=) signs and appearing as though a Shift key is necessary.

3)      Full Computer Screen Viewing

Although this feature can vary from browser to browser, sometimes you can temporarily eliminate the Menu or Search Bar. What a great help this can be if you wish to view an image that will not fit on the screen.

Full screen:

  • [PC] F11 or (Alt and V, F)
  • [Apple] Control and Command and T (^ ⌘ T)

Note: In the PC example, F11 is one of the Windows Function keys. (If it doesn’t exist on your keyboard, you can sometimes press Alt and V to access a menu, and then F to access Full Screen mode.) In the Apple example, the ^ ⌘ indicates that you should hold the Control key and the Command key before tapping the letter T.

Tip: To get out of Full Screen mode, repeat the shortcut sequence, or press the Escape key (aka “Esc”). If this feature doesn’t work for you, search your browser’s help page or look for the feature in the browser’s menu.

4)      Easy Finding of Search Results

When confronted with busy pages of text on a website, finding an ancestor’s name can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

To get around scanning every line for query results, try using the Find feature. Hold the Control key (PC) or Command key (⌘) (Apple) and tap the letter F. Once the Search Bar appears, enter the desired text.

Find:

  • [PC] Ctrl and F
  • [Apple] Command and F (⌘ F)
photo of a webpage with text highlighted, demonstrating the find feature

Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Tip: Most web browsers will show you the number of occurrences of your search term on the page, as well as highlight the results.

5)      Reopening a Webpage

One of the most aggravating blunders is when a webpage is accidentally closed before you are through with it. Depending upon your browser, you may be able to reopen it.

Open a closed webpage:

  • [PC] Ctrl and Shift and T
  • [Apple] Command and Shift and T (⌘ Shift T) or ⌘ Z in certain versions of Safari

Tip: If this trick doesn’t work, try searching your browser’s history to find the webpage. Read this article to learn how to access your browsing history in all popular web browsers: http://www.wikihow.com/View-Browsing-History. Alternatively, you may wish to switch to another browser, or upgrade yours to the latest version.

Browser Keyboard Shortcut Resources

There are literally hundreds more browser keyboard shortcuts that I was unable to address in this blog article, so I’ve provided you links to find many more helpful time-saving tips.

According to the website W3Schools, the most widely used browsers (listed in order of usage) are: Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari.

Here are links to the support and keyboard shortcut pages of these four popular browsers:

Here’s one more link to find additional keyboard shortcuts:

I’d like to mention that getting great results isn’t about participating in a popularity contest. If your browser works for you, stick with it. However, if you can’t find what you are looking for, do as many seasoned genealogists do: experiment with alternatives.

Results often vary!

Lastly, please keep your software up-to-date, as older versions may not accommodate the same features and are often more vulnerable to security issues.

Upcoming Seminar: “Beyond Your Normal Web Search”

If you enjoyed this blog article and plan to be in the Houston, Texas, area on 26 April 2014, I’ll be presenting an expanded version of these computer tips during a seminar at the 2014 Houston East Family Search Conference at Summerwood.

I hope these time-saving keyboard shortcuts help in your genealogy research. If you have a favorite keyboard shortcut of your own, please share with us in the comments.

How to Find Tricky & Common Ancestor Names in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides some tips and tricks to find ancestors that are difficult to search for because they have common names, such as Smith or Jones.

One of my favorite genealogical expressions is: “My ancestor must have been in the Witness Protection Program, as there is absolutely no evidence of him [or her]!”

I always feel for people when they can’t find even the tiniest tidbit about an ancestor when they search in an extensive collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Very often, information about the target ancestor is in the old newspapers—but the ancestor search may be made more difficult because their name may be tricky. This is especially true for ancestors with diabolically vexing common names, such as John Smith, John Jones, or William Scott (the name of one of my ancestors).

This blog article shows you some search tips and tricks to find these difficult ancestors with common names in newspapers.

Finding Your Target Smith or Jones

As is well known, Smith and Jones are incredibly common names, as are John and William. In this 1844 newspaper article, take a look at how many people named Smith and Jones attended this family’s Christmas party.

I can’t fathom how many historical characters were named John or William—and I know from first-hand experience, sorting them out is challenging.

Note how many Johns there were in this tongue-in-cheek account of an annual Smith Christmas party. Not only are there numerous family members named John Smith, but there seems to be an equal number by the given name of Charles, not to mention all of the John Joneses and their wives, famously known as “Mrs.”

article about an annual Christmas party for the Smith family, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 8 January 1844

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 8 January 1844, page 1

Although you may never sort out a complicated family such as the one attending the Smith Christmas party, let’s review a few genealogy tips on how you might proceed with newspaper searches for ancestors with common names.

One-Name Ancestor Name Studies

Although tedious, consider undertaking a one-name study for a specific area, and cross-reference the results with persons by the same name in the same location. It will serve as a prospective list, and help you determine who’s who.

For example, in the GenealogyBank search box do a search for all the John Smiths in the Boston area.

screenshot of a search for John Smith in Boston on GenealogyBank

By incorporating a date range, such as 1844-1846, and a location, you may discover births, marriages, deaths, and even charming stories—such as this one, found doing a different John Smith search using the date 1856.

The John Smith in this newspaper article was a mate of the good ship Sally, and one day when the captain discovered him sleeping during his watch, John reacted vociferously: “do you supposed that I’m a d—–d horse to sleep standing up?” This quick and witty response caused the captain to laugh all the way back to his cabin, thereby allowing John Smith to finish his nap!

article about John Smith, Times-Picayune newspaper article 5 February 1856

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 5 February 1856, page 1

Search for Ancestor Names by Category

Another useful technique is to narrow a query using the various newspaper article categories found on GenealogyBank’s Search Results page.

For example, when I did the search above for Boston and John Smith with the date range 1844-1846, this was the Search Results page.

screenshot of search results page on GenealogyBank for a search for John Smith in Boston

First of all, this Search Results page shows there are 844 records matching the query. Notice the box on the left-hand side of the page: it breaks these 844 results down into various categories to make your searching easier. The most popular historical newspaper categories are shown first, including these results:

Initial Search Results

  • Historical Obituaries 19
  • Marriage Records 8
  • Passenger Lists 48
  • Newspaper Articles 203
  • Legal, Probate & Court 15

That accounts for the first 293 results. And the rest? See below the list of initial search results, where there is a blue arrow and it says “551 More”? Click on that blue arrow to see the remaining 551 results organized by category.

screenshot of the expanded search results page on GenealogyBank for a search for John Smith in Boston

Expanded Search Results

  • Newspaper Letters 7
  • Poems & Songs 1
  • Ads & Classifieds 540
  • Commodity & Stocks 2
  • Political & Elections 1

To select a newspaper category, click on the blue link. Try not to rule out seemingly less interesting categories—even an advertisement can hold a clue to a family business or probate record.

When dealing with a return as large as 844 hits, it makes the task of examining the results easier if you break them down into smaller groups by category, then examine each category one by one—the lesser totals will help you retain your focus, and it’s quicker to examine results when they’re grouped by category because you know what to expect and can accelerate your examination.

Narrowing Your Ancestor Name Search

When an extended family has chosen to name many offspring with similar or identical names, sharpen your search by looking for nicknames and other appellations (such as Senior and Junior), along with search terms that denote a particular characteristic of your ancestor, in an attempt to find that one specific individual you’re searching for.

Ancestor Nicknames & Distinctive Physical Characteristics

If you think we have a hard time straightening out complicated families, so did our ancestors. One of the ways they avoided confusion was to give people nicknames. The following comical 1876 newspaper article illustrates a breadth of creative nicknames.

A “respectable-looking old gentleman from the Eastern States” was trying to find a man named Smith in Austin, Nevada. The boy assisting him wanted to know which Smith the man was looking for and made many helpful suggestions, including: Big Smith, Little Smith, Three-fingered Smith, Bottle-nose Smith, Cock-eye Smith, Six-toed Smith, Mush-head Smith, One-legged Smith, Bow-legged Smith, and many more.

The old gentleman retorted: “My son, the Smith I am in search of possesses to his name none of the heathenish prefixes you have mentioned. His name is simply John Smith.”

To which the boy promptly responded: “All them fellows is named John!”

Looking for Smith, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 2 June 1876

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 2 June 1876, page 3

Searching by Generational Suffix: Senior & Junior

A common genealogical trap is thinking that “Seniors” and “Juniors” are related. From a historical perspective, senior means older, or of an advanced age, which is exactly how our ancestors interpreted the generational name designation. Two people with the same name, one a senior and one a junior, were not necessarily related.

  • Senior: indicates that there were two or more persons by the same name living in a community, with the senior being older than the junior.
  • Junior: indicates that there was another person by the same name, who was older than the person under discussion.

Distinctive Physical Characteristics

As seen in the humorous account of the many John Smiths of Austin, Nevada, people are often associated with their distinctive physical characteristics, whether it be their hair color, weight or height. An example from my own ancestry is finding two William Scotts, both of Revolutionary War fame.

Although cousins, one of the William Scotts (my ancestor) was shorter than the other. Family and other historical accounts refer to him as “Short Bill,” and the other as “Tall Bill.”

Prefix Name Titles & Initials

If someone held a position of honor, the title or the given (first name) might be ignored or abbreviated. Here are some examples of common name prefixes, which you could incorporate into an ancestor search:

  • Gen. Smith
  • Col. E. Smith
  • Rev. Dr. Smith
Passengers, Charleston Courier newspaper article 7 September 1849

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 7 September 1849, page 2

If you are searching for an ancestor with a common name, make note if you ever run across that ancestor’s nickname, title, or distinctive characteristic—then incorporate that information into your search. You just might get lucky and find that individual needle in the haystack of common names.

Search Photos to Find Your Ancestor with a Common Name

One advantage to large families with common names is that you might find a family reunion newspaper article and—if lucky—a reunion photograph. Here is an example, displaying the “Largest Family in Mississippi,” all related to William Smith and his wife Catherine Pinkie Smith—with each individual clearly identified.

Death Invades Circle of 'Largest' Family in Mississippi, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 March 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 March 1922, page 39

Search Locations, Dates & Publications

Finally, try searching for your ancestor with a common name by specific locations, such as New York or New Hampshire.

After selecting “New York” as a target area, I searched for my ancestor William Scott (he was from the Saratoga Springs area) and found some good information.

screenshot of search for William Scott on GenealogyBank

By expanding the search to all of New York, I found death notices in newspapers that were published outside of Saratoga Springs. These newspaper articles provided many exciting life details, including William Scott’s approximate date of immigration prior to the Revolutionary War, information that he had fought in the battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton, White Plains and Saratoga, and that he had 38 battle wounds!

obituary for William Scott, Orange County Patriot; or, The Spirit of Seventy-Six newspaper article 15 August 1815

Orange County Patriot; or, The Spirit of Seventy-Six (Goshen, New York), 15 August 1815, page 1

As in all genealogical searches, these death notices led to more searches with even more results, including information that William Scott had actually been captured at the Battle of Bunker Hill! If you search for more newspaper articles about him, you’ll even discover that he wrote an account of what happened to the prisoners of war. This is a pretty cool research discovery for an ancestor whose common name posed search challenges, isn’t it!

Here is one of the newspaper articles about William Scott that I found in my additional searches.

casualty list for the Battle of Bunker Hill, Pennsylvania Journal newspaper article 27 September 1775

Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 September 1775, page 2

So don’t despair if you’re trying to find information about an ancestor with a common name. Yes, your first search may have turned up so many results you felt hopeless trying to weed through them, looking for information about your target ancestor. But if you use the ancestor search tips and tricks discussed in this article, you just might make that family history discovery you’ve spent years searching for! Good luck and have fun ancestor name hunting!

Tips & Tricks to Search Online Newspapers at GenealogyBank

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows some of the search techniques she uses when researching GenealogyBank’s newspapers collection—to help our readers do more efficient searches and save them time with their family history research.

Every American family has a heritage to celebrate—whether it is a connection with a specific event, such as the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620; a military event, such as the Civil War of 1861-1865; a particular country of origin; or person of interest, such as a president, suffragette or abolitionist.

I’m lucky to have proved connections in my family history to many of the above (alas, no president), and like most family researchers have jumped for joy at finding the documented proof.

Once we find the genealogical connections (sometimes with the help of others’ research), we feel enormous satisfaction. However, many genealogists don’t realize that search engines can be tweaked to shorten searches and make family history research more efficient— in particular the genealogy search engine within GenealogyBank.

The trick to more efficient searching is to experiment with specific targeted keywords, related to events or ancestry, along with adding wildcards (more on that below) that accommodate for variations.

Keyword Search: Lineal Descendancy

Let’s start with searches related to specific descendants, using the keywords “lineal descendant,” with or without an added surname.

In this example (long before lineage societies became popular), we read that Mr. Michael Kett, a Quaker, was a lineal descendant from Robert Kett, described as the famous tanner and political reformer in the reign of King Edward the Sixth.

Michael Kett obituary, Providence Gazette newspaper article 27 March 1784

Providence Gazette (Providence, Rhode Island), 27 March 1784, page 2

Doesn’t an ancestral report like that get a genealogist excited!

Most of us are happy to research to an immigrant’s arrival in America, but this gentleman had reportedly traced his ancestry to King Edward VI of England, whose brief life occurred between 1537 and 1553, having been crowned at the young age of nine.

Search Newspapers for Events

Another suggested query is to incorporate the word descendant with a specific event, such as the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620.

Enclosing the search in quotes, “Mayflower descendant,” produces a different result than if you searched on each term without the quotation marks. The difference is that when you simply input terms without quotes, the search engine will find results whenever the two words are located anywhere within the same article—but if you enclose the terms in quotation marks, the terms have to be next to each other in an article in order to show up on the search results page.

Note: generally the “s” is ignored, along with capitalization, so don’t worry about entering “Mayflower descendants” or “mayflower descendant”; either will suffice.

Mayflower Descendants, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 14 April 1896

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 14 April 1896, page 10

This obituary for Sarah Harlow of 13 March 1823 mentions that she was a descendant from “Mr. Richard Warren, who came in the Mayflower, in 1620, of the 4th generation.” It was found without using quotation marks around the words Mayflower and descendant.

Sarah Harlow obituary, Repertory newspaper article 13 March 1823

Repertory (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 March 1823, page 4

Accommodating Spelling Variations with Wildcards

Try variations of queries that accommodate spelling variations, by using either a question mark (?) or an asterisk (*). Known as wildcards, the first option replaces a single character in a word, and the other takes the place of several characters.

For example, “Harrell” can be spelled in a variety of ways, such as “Harrall” or “Herrell.”

If you want to search for all of these variations at once, substitute vowels with question marks. In addition, many early newspapers sometimes abbreviated “Samuel” as “Saml,” so try entering the given name as “Sam*” or “Sam*l.”

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for Samuel Harrell

When I search for American Revolutionary War patriots, I often find the war described in various ways. One article might mention the Revolution, and another might describe someone as a Revolutionary War patriot. The solution is to abbreviate the term and add a specific surname.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for Gilman

Don’t forget that you can direct the genealogy search engine to ignore certain words using the “Exclude Keywords” box.

If you are looking for one of George Washington’s namesakes, it might be useful to ignore the title President, whether it is abbreviated or spelled in full. And if you are repeating a previous search, you might wish to limit the query to the content added to GenealogyBank since your last search. Simply select the “Added Since” drop-down arrow, and limit by date.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for George Washington

These newspaper search techniques usually carry over to your favorite Internet search engines.

Many search engines, such as Google Chrome, have advanced search options. However, if you can’t spot how to do that, you can still succeed. Without complicating things, you can apply what is known as a Boolean operator to a search query.

The three most common Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT (in capitals).

  1. AND is usually a given in searches, but if you wish to be specific for search engines that ignore certain terms, be sure to add it.
  2. NOT is equivalent to adding a minus sign (-), and indicates that you want a search that does not include something.
  3. OR is an option that tells the search engine to find one thing or another.
  • Harrell OR Herrell OR Harrall
  • “George Washington” NOT President
  • “George Washington” -President
  • George Washington AND Adams

Occasionally you’ll find additional operators, such as the mostly undocumented NEAR in Bing, or AROUND in Google, as well as the ability to search by date ranges.

  • “Susan Smith” 1940…1950 (finds references for this person between two dates)
  • “Egbert Jones” 38…48 (finds a range of numbers connected with this person, such as a specified age)

You’ll need to experiment with the various search engines, and browse their help features. Click here to find a reference on search operators from GoogleGuide’s list: http://www.googleguide.com/advanced_operators_reference.html.

In addition, you’ll find that many popular social network and e-mail programs have additional shortcuts and search options that can be useful for searching.

Please let us know your favorite search techniques in GenealogyBank. Other readers may find them useful!

Tips to Get the Most Out of Your GenealogyBank Subscription

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post Gena provides some search tips, and shows some resources available on the GenealogyBank website, to help her readers better understand how to use GenealogyBank with their family history research.

What are you doing this weekend? Have any genealogy research plans? How about spending the weekend with GenealogyBank and getting to know it better? What can you do to get the most out of your GenealogyBank subscription? Here are a few resources and tips to get you started.

screenshot of the home page for GenealogyBank.com

Tip 1: Start with the Learning Center

It’s in the Learning Center that you can find guidance for using GenealogyBank and researching your family history—there is a tab for it on the top of the GenealogyBank home page. The Learning Center page features six different sections, offering you many free resources to better understand how to do family history research—and how GenealogyBank can help you do it.

screenshot of the Learning Center page on the website GenealogyBank.com

Learn Online

From the “Learn Online—Webinars & Video Tutorials” section, I recommend the video “How to Search GenealogyBank” to start.

screenshot of the Learning Center page on the website GenealogyBank.com

GenealogyBank Blog

You can access the GenealogyBank Blog from the Learning Center, which offers hundreds of genealogy articles. Once there you can search the blog by keyword. Articles on the blog include tips, “how-tos,” and case studies. Reading the blog will give you many ideas for researching your family history.

Newsletter Archives

You can also access the extensive archives of the monthly newsletter GenealogyBank News from the Learning Center, providing hundreds more genealogy articles to help you get started tracing your family tree.

The three sections on the lower half of the Learning Center page provide even more resources for family history research.

screenshot of the Learning Center page on the website GenealogyBank.com

Download Free E-Book

Be sure to download the free e-book Getting Started Climbing Your Family Tree—this provides a great introduction.

What’s New?

I also recommend searching on the list of newspapers available under the heading “What’s New?” to get an idea of what newspapers GenealogyBank has to assist you in your genealogy research. Remember that newspapers are constantly being added to the website on a daily basis, so this list is frequently updated.

Call Our Family History Consultants

The Learning Center also provides a toll-free phone line to reach a Family History Consultant; these GenealogyBank experts will show you how to better use the site for your family history research.

Tip 2: Try Our Other Genealogy Databases

GenealogyBank is known for its historical newspaper archives, but there is so much more to the website. Besides newspapers you can find the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), historical documents, historical books, and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. Why not take some time this weekend to look over these resources and see which ones should be explored further for your family history research?

screenshot of the home page on the website GenealogyBank.com

U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Ever use the U.S. Congressional Serial Set—a collection of the official papers and documents of Congress? Not sure how it can help your genealogy research? 19th century gems like land records, pensioners’ lists and military registers can be found in this U.S. government collection.

One of my favorite finds from this collection is the list that includes the name of my 4th great-grandmother’s husband, who was pardoned by the President for being a “Rebel Postmaster” during the Civil War.

To learn more about the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, see the article “Using the Congressional Serial Set for Genealogical Research” by Jeffery Hartley, which was excerpted and reprinted on the GenealogyBank blog. Start your search of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set by using the Historical Documents & Records search page.

Tip 3: How to Become a Search Master

Here are three steps to follow to help you become a master at searching for family records in GenealogyBank.

Step 1: Make a Keyword List

First, make a list of the keywords you will be searching on, including the names of your ancestors, places they lived, or events they were a part of. Make note of name variations, including the use of initials for the first or middle name, as well as any alternative spellings. When researching women, remember that they may not be listed by their given name, but instead by their husband’s name—as in Mrs. George Smith. Because names can be misspelled, consider using alternative search techniques like wild cards to catch any mentions that you might otherwise miss.

Step 2: Start Broad, Then Narrow

Second, cast out a wide net and then narrow your search. Techniques for narrowing your search include things like searching for newspapers in just the state that your ancestor was from, or adding other family members’ names, or the name of an organization. If a name is unusual, consider searching by just the surname and then narrowing your search by adding the given name. Casting a wide net is a good technique if your ancestor had a fairly uncommon name—but in the case of Smith, Jones or Adams, it may just result in a bigger research headache.

Step 3: Get Search Engine Savvy

Third, make sure that you understand how to best use the GenealogyBank search engine. This will assist you as you consider different search techniques. From the GenealogyBank Help page you can learn such things as how to search by collection, how to narrow your results, and advanced search techniques like phrase searching and wild cards.

Have some free time this weekend? Spend that time getting the most out of your GenealogyBank subscription and find more information to tell the story of your family history.

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 1: Google

I have been working on my family history for 50 years now. So much has changed—family researchers today have a much different task then we had decades ago.

Looking at the online genealogy tools available today, I would like to focus on the top 13 websites that will save you time and money so that your family research is preserved, well documented and readily available to the rising generation of your extended family tree.

Over the next several blog posts in our ongoing content series I will show which genealogy websites are the best and why you need to be using them to trace and document your family tree. All of these genealogy websites are world-class, the crème de la crème.

a Google logo

Credit: Google.com

Top Genealogy Website #1 – Google

Yes, there are millions of genealogy-relevant items on the open Internet. Beginners and advanced researchers can quickly find valuable records about their target ancestors online—and doing a search on Google’s search engine is an excellent way to find these ancestry records.

screenshot of a Google search for Willard Henry Kemp

Credit: Google.com

A Google search for my grandfather, Willard Henry Kemp, pulls up 22.3 million search results.

I can see that the first few results have accurately pointed me to online records that I can use. But—there are 22.3 million of these suggested matches! There must be a way to cut through this huge amount and get to the family records I really want to use.

Let’s try that Google search for my grandfather again.

Helpful Genealogy Search Tool: the Phrase “~genealogy”

Use this handy tool ~genealogy to fine-tune your Google searches.

This tool tells the Google search engine that you want to focus on genealogy records and resources, narrowing your search results to those records. Use it in your Google searches to save time and get the most useful records for your family tree research.

This time I will search for information about my grandfather in Google by putting his name in quotation marks (to exactly match his name) and I will add: ~genealogy.

screenshot of Google search for Willard Henry Kemp adding phrase "~genealogy"

Credit: Google.com

This time the Google search engine returned 35 targeted search results. That is a lot easier to review than 22.3 million.

I can quickly open and evaluate these records and then try alternate Google searches to expand my search results, such as:

  • “Willard Kemp” ~genealogy
  • Kemp and Stamford ~genealogy
  • etc.

I highly recommend you try a Google search to get an idea of what information might be out there on the web about your target ancestor—and then use the phrase ~genealogy to make the search results more manageable. Using Google is a great way to start exploring your family history.

Next article: #2 The Online Digital Book Sites

Genealogy Search Tip: Are Your Queries Returning Too Many Records?

GenealogyBank has grown from 160 million records since its inception to over 1.3 billion records today. That is a lot of articles to search through to find information about your family history. Genealogists often approach GenealogyBank with a direct search—using a surname—searching across the entire database to make sure we don’t miss any genealogy records about the family.

Sometimes, though, the simplest search query returns too many records for you to reasonably examine them all. When that happens, GenealogyBank has created over a dozen targeted search pages to help you narrow down the number of results you get back. Here’s a quick list of these helpful targeted search pages to get you started:

You can also perform targeted ethnic family searches with our African American, Hispanic and Irish American search pages.

Use these special search pages to narrow down your search to a particular type of newspaper article, as the following example shows.

Let’s say you’re searching for all the arrivals and departures of the ship Hector. If you search GenealogyBank just using the word “Hector,” you’ll get 400,000 hits. But, if you search the word “Hector” using the handy Passenger Lists link on our home page or in the left navigation pane of the Newspaper Archives category, you can narrow those search results to 14,000 passenger and ship records that specifically mention the ship Hector.

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for "Hector"

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for “Hector”

Even 14,000 records are a lot to examine. Limit the search again by a range of years when your relatives likely arrived on the ship Hector and you’ll have a manageable number of articles to sift through. Let’s say you are reasonably sure your ancestors arrived in America on the ship Hector sometime between 1820 and 1825—go ahead and use that date range in your search query.

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on "Hector" from 1820-1825

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on “Hector” from 1820-1825

Save time and zero in on the articles you need. GenealogyBank has more than a dozen targeted search pages: use them to focus your searches for the type of newspaper article you are looking for.

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank targeted search pages