How to Use a Thesaurus as a Genealogy Keyword Tool

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary talks about how important it is to try many variations when using keywords for your genealogy searches—and explains how helpful a thesaurus is for finding those variations.

A thesaurus is a marvelous writing tool—and an essential search tool for genealogists. Why?

When writers, and particularly journalists, go out of their way to be creative, they don’t use expected terms to describe ordinary events.

graphic showing how a thesaurus can be useful in finding word variations

Source: Mary Harrell-Sesniak

These writers turn to a thesaurus, such as the renowned (celebrated, famous, notable) lexicon compiled by Dr. Peter Mark Roget of London in 1852. His Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases revolutionized the modern construction of words—although he was not the first or the last to do so.

portrait of Peter Mark Roget by Thomas Pettigrew, 1843

Portrait: Peter Mark Roget by Thomas Pettigrew, 1843. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A search of GenealogyBank’s archives finds references to Stevens’s Thesaurus in 1724, Beveridge’s Thesaurus in 1733, a Thesaurus Medicus in 1784, Tyronis’s Thesaurus in 1812, and a whole slew of others—including clubs and organizations devoted to synonyms and antonyms.

Enter Last Name










screenshot showing GenealogyBank's search results for a search on the word "thesaurus"

(Note: if you are a Wikipedia contributor please expand their Thesaurus article, as not one of these earlier thesauri is mentioned in the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thesaurus.)

One Reason Why Search Queries Fail

Queries can fail if you don’t employ search substitutions—a variation of the word or name you are searching for might work when the original search word or name found no results.

What if the writer, who wrote about your cherished ancestor, was bored with using the same terms repeatedly?

He/she might have concluded that the terms “marry” and “married” are easily exchanged for “matrimony,” “nuptials,” “wedding” and “union.”

Obituarists (or in some cases obscurantists) are also prone to employing “passed away” or “expired” for “death” or “died.”

In many search engines (and especially on the Web) you will miss desired results if you don’t try variations.

Enter Last Name










Searching for Revolutionary War Ancestors

If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll soon learn (ascertain, discover, find) that I am an active American Revolutionary War researcher. I scour archives for patriots and frequently post transcriptions online (see Facebook’s Revolutionary War Research page). There’s even an online index, and later this year I hope to publish an updated reference of this work with the full transcriptions.

Finding early obits and articles about specific patriots can be challenging, so I started cross-referencing searches.

“Revolutionary War,” “American Revolution,” “patriot” and “pensioner” achieved great results, but then one day I found an article about a Revolutionary War ancestor that didn’t include any of those terms. Then I started reading more from the target time period, and concluded that I needed to broaden my selection of keywords.

Revolutionary War Search Keywords

Ever hear of the “shot heard around the world”?

Many think the phrase has something to do with baseball (Bobby Thomson’s home run to win the National League pennant in 1951), but its first known use was to describe the Battles of Lexington and Concord that began the Revolutionary War in 1775. This phrase, along with the “Skirmish at the North Bridge,” appear in numerous articles without incorporating the terms “war” or “American Revolution.”

article about Mr. Gladstone, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 9 October 1876

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 9 October 1876, page 2

Ancestor Name Variations

One day I became curious about people who served with famed Captain John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War, and noticed that some wordsmiths of the past liked to call him Paul Jones and others referred to him as John Paul Jones. In these two obituaries from 1792, for example, one calls him “Paul Jones” and the other “John Paul Jones.”

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search results page for a search on "John Paul Jones"

So when searching for this famous patriot, I now search on both variations of his name.

And my keyword options don’t stop there. I’ve maintained a list of over 50 ways to search for Revolutionary War participants, including the words and phrases “entered the service of his country,” “spirit of ’76” and “Whig.”

Genealogy Keyword Search Tips

To increase the prospects of keyword search success, data-mine search engines with obvious words and consider these tips:

  • Start with obvious keywords.
  • Use a thesaurus to find alternatives and search on those variations.
  • Don’t rely on modern-day expressions for keyword ideas.
  • Observe what was written in articles of the past by reading early newspapers.
  • Keep a list of what you find.
  • Always think like a wordsmith of the past!

Related Keyword Search Tip Articles:

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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.