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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
- 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.
- NOT is equivalent to adding a minus sign (-), and indicates that you want a search that does not include something.
- 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!