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!

How to Spot and Avoid 9 Common Genealogy Mistakes & Errors

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary discusses 9 common mistakes made when doing family history research, and suggests ways to avoid them.

Family history researchers are often frustrated by the mistakes of others—particularly when there is an obvious error in identity, such as the mistake explained in this 1914 Virginia newspaper article. It points out that a member of the Gwathmey family was incorrectly identified as having been a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth.

Rchmond Times Dispatch Newspaper Gwathmey Family Genealogy

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 17 May 1914, page 41.

This sounds like an obvious mistake, and one that could have been corrected with simple subtraction. Unfortunately, once a mistake is written in a book or newspaper article, the mistake is often carried into other research—forever frustrating the more serious genealogists.

Genealogical mistakes are not often easy to sort out, so let’s discuss some strategies.

1. Abbreviations Are Not Always What They Seem

Two of my favorites are “NA” and “NMI.”

In the case of the first abbreviation, “NA” might indicate non applicable, naturalized, Native American or even Navy, demonstrating the importance of finding the “key” explaining what an abbreviation actually means.

Another abbreviation that sometimes causes confusion is the use of “NMI” in place of a middle name. It is not an actual moniker, but rather used to indicate that a person has no middle initial—no middle name.

2. Age-Related Mistakes

  • Women who are too old to be mothers.

Although Mrs. Steve Pace, of Rose Hill, Virginia, reportedly gave birth to her 17th child in 1939 at the age of 73 (see the Wikipedia article “Pregnancy Over Age 50”), it is rare for women to give birth over the age of 50.

If a woman continued to give birth through her 40s, then it is possible that a report of her having a child as an older woman may be correct.

However, whenever you see such an older mother-child relationship claim, examine the possibility that the family may have been raising an orphan or a grandchild.

  • Persons who were born too young or old to have served during a military event.

If you are researching an ancestor for a lineage society, such as the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution, start by figuring out the beginning and ending dates of the event.

For example, the American Civil War occurred between 1861 and 1865.

Although there are examples of very young veterans, most of the younger set did not serve in a military capacity—unless they were older. One exception was Civil War Missouri veteran George Huffman, who enrolled as a volunteer in the 13th Missouri Infantry on 4 November 1861 at the age of 14. He re-enlisted on 8 February 1864, and was considered to have been the youngest veteran to have re-enlisted that year—as explained in this 1864 Massachusetts newspaper article.

Lowell Daily Citizen & News Newspaper George Huffman Civil War

Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts), 2 September 1864, page 2.

For the most part, however, it is safe to assume that someone—other than a drummer or bugler—must have been at least 15 when he enlisted for combat service. Therefore, it is unlikely that a combat veteran actually served in the Civil War if he was born after the year 1850.

Now, if a child served in a non-military capacity, then you might find evidence of children as young as seven involved in a war—such as Nathan Futrell, a young boy who served in the American Revolutionary War.

Greensboro Daily News Newspaper Nathan Futrell Revolutionary War

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 3 January 1971, page 24.

You can also apply an age factor to determine the likelihood of an older person serving in the military.

3. All Applicable Genealogy Records Have Not Been Found

Just because you can’t find a genealogical proof doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist. For example, many military records were burned, so look to other types of records for evidence.

In other words, if an original record is missing you might be able to find alternate records. In the case of a missing military record, look for a petition for a pension, or a list of enlistments, reprinted in an old newspaper article. Other possible genealogical sources: a family diary or letter, or church bulletin, that references military service.

4. Children Listed without Parents May Not Be Orphans

Just because a child is not recorded with a parent on a census record doesn’t necessarily indicate that both parents are deceased.

On one of the 1850 U.S. Federal Census records, I noted that the children of my ancestor Permelia Ann (Davis) Drake were living in different households.

Not finding their mother, I at first assumed that she had died. It turned out that she was very much alive, and recorded in the census with her second husband, Samuel Bassett. It’s not clear why the children were with the neighbors in 1850, but perhaps they were mother’s helpers or farm helpers working to support the family.

5. Informants Are Not Always Correct

A primary record is one that was recorded at the time of the event. A secondary record is one that is recorded later, generally from an informant. In the case of a death certificate, the date and place of death is primary evidence, but the birth date of the decedent, along with the stated parents, is not necessarily correct.

In my family, my great-grandfather’s parents were recorded on his death certificate as his natural parents, when in fact court records and other records establish that he had been adopted.

6. Just Because Two People with the Same Name Reside in the Same Area Does Not Necessarily Mean They Are Related (Coincidences Happen)

In the case of my ancestor William Harrell of Virginia (and Indiana) of the late 1700s and early 1800s, it turns out there are three men by the same name. Now that descendants have submitted results from DNA studies, it is clear that they were not closely related.

7. Spelling Errors

Alternate spellings are the norm, rather than the exception.

For example, my Ebling ancestors can be found with the surname spelling Ebeling, Hebling and even Heblinger. As a result, I always browse a book’s index to see if there are similar spellings. When searching online or in a search box, such as at GenealogyBank, I frequently use a wildcard such as a question mark (?) or asterisk (*) when searching for ancestor names.

  • The ? is used to take the place of one letter
  • The * is used to take the place of several letters

For example:

  • Eb*ing* would find Ebling, Ebeling and Eblinger
  • ?Eb*ing* would find all of the above, and include Hebling or Heblinger
  • Cath?rine would find both Catherine and Catharine

8. Transpositions (Reversing or Mixing Up Letters and Numbers)

Many people, including myself, are prone to transpositions. The year 1787, for example, might be unintentionally entered as 1778, or even 1877.

To overcome this tendency, be sure to closely examine recorded figures, such as the reported age at death. Several genealogy programs calculate this figure, and may even note it during an error check.

9. Widows and Widowers May Not Necessarily Be Widowed

In the event of a divorce, separation or bigamy, a spouse might be recorded as widowed on an official record. This may be to handle a delicate issue, or simply to accommodate a census form that didn’t have other options.

These are just a few common genealogical errors. If you have some that you have observed, please share them with us on Facebook or our blog page in the comments section!

Deciphering 19th Century Handwriting and Type in Records & Newspapers

19th Century newspapers and handwritten records (such as the census) can be hard to read.

If you are having difficulty deciphering the handwriting or type, read through the issue of a newspaper or page in the census to see if other words on the page can give you clues to the editor’s or census taker’s writing style.

For example: here we have Eliza Markham living with her husband and family in Gerry, Chautauqua County, New York, as recorded in the 1855 New York State Census.

photo of the listing of the Markham family in the 1855 New York State Census

Credit: FamilySearch.org
1855 New York State Census
https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/K6SG-7SG

Look carefully at the handwritten entry for Eliza Markham.

photo of the listing of Eliza Markham in the 1855 New York State Census

Credit: FamilySearch.org
1855 New York State Census
https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/K6SG-7SG

Is her name “Eliza” or “Eleru”?

Is this a 19th Century name you’re not familiar with—or is it simply a handwriting style you don’t recognize?

Not so simple is it?

As you look at each handwritten letter in her name, you have to think through the options. Some letters are easier to read then others.

What you want to do is to carefully review the other words on the page to become more familiar with the census taker’s handwriting.

Let’s examine each letter in this name:

  • “E” – the initial letter has flourishes that make you wonder, but it is probably an “E”
    “l” – yes, the second letter is clearly a lower-case “l”
  • “i” – the “i” can be a little tricky—I don’t see a dot over the “i”…is this an “e” instead?
  • “z” – is that fourth letter an “r”? Would that fit? Looking at it again, it is probably the letter “z” written in the printed style instead of the cursive style
  • “a” – what about this open-topped final letter—is it the letter “u” or an “a”?

In trying to determine if that final letter is a “u” or an “a,” look at other examples on that same page:

  • Repeatedly the final “a” in Markham is written with an open top, much like a “u”
  • The daughter’s name “Alvira” on the seventh line is written with an open-topped final “a”
  • The family’s one-year-old son—and the father—also have a final open-topped “a” in their name

So, we can conclude from this handwriting pattern that her name was “Eliza.”

You will want to verify this by comparing the name to other genealogy records created in her lifetime.

Newspaper editors set and reset the pieces of type needed for each day’s newspaper. Broken type, ink spots, and gremlins of all sizes made their way into print and became a permanent part of the surviving newspapers—just like the imperfections in the handwritten records made by thousands of census takers a century ago.

FamilySearch Wiki has a handy multi-page chart of common spelling and transcription errors that were common in 19th Century printed newspapers and in handwritten documents like the census.

The “Intended” column shows what the letter was supposed to be, while the “Common Mistakes” column shows how the letter may appear.

a common-letter mistakes chart from FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch Wiki

See the FamilySearch common letter mistakes charts here: https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Spelling_Substitution_Tables_for_the_United_States_and_Canada

With these handy charts—and the patience to examine other examples on the page you’re viewing—you’ll find it gets easier deciphering difficult-to-read 19th Century newspapers and handwritten records.

Name Research Tip: Search Variations of Family First & Last Names

It is generally rare for families to change the spelling of their names (although some immigrant families did so in an attempt to make their names sound more familiar to American ears, so be aware of this possibility).

When doing your family history research, however, you may encounter variations on the spelling of your family’s name for a reason that had nothing to do with the family: registrars often recorded names the way they heard them.

All my growing-up years I had to spell my last name because everyone wanted to write “Kent” instead of “Kemp.”

Why?

Because they were unfamiliar with my surname.

Kemp is an uncommon surname, and for that reason it is spelled differently in various records.

Some variations of my last name I’ve encountered: Kent, Kamp, Camp, etc.

You know by name research experience which names could be a problem.

In the past some immigrants did decide to simplify their names in an attempt to fit in better with American society, revising their original foreign-spelled name when there was an obvious English equivalent. Names were Anglicized: Mueller became Miller; Johansson became Johnson; etc.

Contrary to movie portrayals, it was not government policy to change people’s names.

There was no government official at Castle Garden or Ellis Island responsible for changing the names of incoming immigrants.

If you are having trouble finding your target ancestor searching by their surname, try searching on the first name.

In time Americans—whether they were government officials, teachers, etc.—became more familiar with immigrants’ first names and were more likely to record them spelled correctly. While they had difficulty with seemingly one-off surnames, there was a smaller supply of first names. It was easy for Americans to remember Johann, Guido or Ludwig. Although, of course, the first name could also be Anglicized: Johann becoming John; Tâm becoming Tom; etc.

For all these reasons, it is a good idea to try searching for variations of your ancestors’ first and last names when doing your family history research searches, to increase the chances of finding documents and records about them.

Let me give you a case in point.

I was recently searching the New Jersey State Archives for the death certificate of Isaac Meserole.

I went to the online index to New Jersey Death Certificates for 1878 to 1888 and searched for him.

I found several “Meserole” death certificates but not one for Isaac.

I knew Isaac had died in North Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey, around 1882. So I searched using only his first name “Isaac”—leaving the surname field blank.

Bingo! His entry came right up, with his surname spelled as “Meseroll.” The registrar had written the name as he heard it.

Here is the entry for Isaac:

death certificate for isaac meserole for January 6, 1882, from the new jersey state archives

Death certificate for Isaac Meserole, 6 January 1882, from the New Jersey State Archives

This is a good research tip for when you search for ancestors on GenealogyBank or any online resource. Begin your family search with the correct spelling of your ancestor’s name. Then do follow-up searches, with name variations for both the first and last names, and see if you can find additional genealogy records. You may find that record you’ve long been searching for, but remained hidden because the ancestor’s name had been misspelled.