Category Archives: Research Tips

Advanced Search in Ancestry – A Success Story

Every once in a while I manage to stumble across an option or feature that I have either not realized was there or didn’t recognize for its usefulness.  Case in point is the Ancestry’s advanced search which provides various options for reigning in a search based on geographic area in conjunction with family members, etc. To better explain this, I guess I should start at the beginning of the story…

Off and on for about the last five or six years I have been unsuccessfully searching for my husband’s great-grandparents, Andrew and Anna Stibrik and their family, in the 1920 census. They should have been in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — but all my searches were drawing a blank. I almost had myself convinced that when they saw the census taker coming, they locked the doors and hid!! A week or so ago, I finally found them! I thought I would relate the story here as the techniques used may help someone else in their searching.

I started with the Ancestry’s Advanced Search. (I always use advanced search as opposed to regular search.) Since Stibrik is not a real common surname, I did what I typically do, which is to search on just the surname along with an approximate year of birth. But I had tried that before and knew it wasn’t going to work. I had also tried all kinds of variations of Stibrik — like Stibrick, Stibryk, etc. I had tried to think of ways it could be misspelled or misinterpreted by the indexers (due to sloppy or otherwise illegible handwriting). So I had tried Stebrek, Strebreck, Stibrink, etc. I also usually try to think of alternate phonetic spellings based on how a person might pronounce it with an accent; but to be honest, in the case of Stibrik I really wasn’t sure how that could be mispronounced.

After having no luck with the surname-based searches, I figured the last name was either very badly mangled or just plain wrong. (i.e. Perhaps the Stibriks were living with another family and were erroneously enumerated under that family’s surname.) So as a next step I tried searching on just the first names. Andrew, Andr’w, Andy, etc. with wife Anna or Annie. (I was able to add the wife as a family member and have it incorporated into the search because I was targeting a census after 1880 and thus family relationships were recorded.) Theoretically this should have worked, but the problem was the overwhelming number of “wrong” hits that Ancestry was presenting before the “correct” hit.

Why were the “wrong” hits appearing first? Well, probably a couple of reasons. If I used “Andrew” as the first name, all “Andrews” appear before those enumerated with “Andrw” or “Andy” or “A.” Adding a “lived in constraint” will give preference to those in the correct location, but will still list an “Andrew” in another state before an “Andy” in the targeted “lived in” location. Add to this that the husband could be enumerated as “Andy” and the wife as “Annie” or maybe they were “Andrw” and “A.” Bottom line, I just wasn’t hitting the correct combination. And this was compounded by the fact that both Andrew and Anna are relatively common names.

So what did I do? Well, first of all, I loaded up on family members. In addition to Andrew and Anna, I knew that 5 of their 6 children were born before 1920, so I added in their names in the “family member” section. Then I clicked on “add life events” and put in the location of  “Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania” as chosen from the drop down list. Then (and I think this was key), underneath the box containing “Pittsburgh”, I clicked on “use default settings.” A pop up menu came up and I clicked on the “restrict to this place exactly.”  I also added in an approximate birth year for Andrew, but left the place blank because he was born in Austria/Hungary and I wasn’t sure if the birth place would be recorded as Austria, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia.

Now when the results came back, one of the options returned (about the 8th or 9th choice) was the family of Andy and Annie Stiewick. I checked out the image and it is definitely them. And it definitely says Stiewick instead of Stibrik. (What can I say, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out misspellings based on a German or PA Dutch accent, but I’ve got a way to go with a Slovak accent! It’s a variation I wouldn’t have come up with in a thousand years!)

Some other tips – I often have better luck searching for one of the children rather than a parent (especially in early censuses (1850-1870) where the family relationship are not recorded. I think this is because the adults have a greater tendency to fudge on their age, making them easier to miss when looking for a George age 32 and he decides he’ll only be 28 when the census taker asks! I also tend to search on a family member with a less common (but easily spelled) first name. In other words, it’s often easier to find the son Horatio than the father John. Also keep in mind nicknames and abbreviations (like Jno. for John or Saml for Samuel) and don’t forget to try also searching with them.

Well, I hope this helps. I only wish I had tried the exact place match sooner!!


New Databases at

If you haven’t gone to the site lately you may want to click on over and check it out. They have been adding tons of databases – some with images and some without. Of particular interest to me has been the birth, marriage and death databases for a variety of states, including New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Indiana, Minnesota and others. In my goal to identify “all” descendants of some of my immigrant ancestors, I have been quite successful in finding records for several distant (and not so distant) cousins that moved out of our ancestral home state of Pennsylvania.

Now there are a couple of things of which to be aware. For the databases that include images, I believe you need to be registered and logged in to view the actual images. This is really not a big deal since registration is FREE!!

The other thing is that if I know a cousin moved to a certain area, I find it useful to focus my search to a particular database – say the New Jersey marriage database. The easiest way that I have found to do this is to go the main screen and click on the appropriate region under the “Browse by Location” – in my case that would be “USA, Canada, Mexico.”

That brings up a new screen with a listing of all the Historical Records for that area of the world. Rather than scrolling through the list, I type “New Jersey” in the search box on the upper left and the list automatically is pared down to only the records pertaining to that place.

Now it’s just a matter of clicking on the appropriate collection which will take you to the focused search screen. From there I usually just enter the surname and see what records I can find. You automatically get  exact and close matches, although if the surname is really badly mangled in the index you may need to search on a combination of first name and dates.

Also bear in mind that they are constantly adding new collections so if you can’t find what you are looking for check back in a month or so and try again – you never know when the records you’ve been searching for may be added.

Till later,


Google Books and Google News Archive

Belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! It’s been so long since I posted to this blog that it almost seems like I’ve abandoned it. Well, I guess to a degree I have but maybe I can do better this year :).

Anyway, I just wanted to make a quick post about two features in google that I have been using fairly often to aid in genealogical research. The first is google books. I have started to find quite a few genealogy-related books on google, including several of the “Biographical/Historical” county books that were so popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Google has scanned them and made them available in pdf format. Continue reading

Why can’t I find my ancestor in the census?

One of my research strategies (and I think this one probably applies to most family researchers) is that I like to try to find an individual in all the available censuses that span that individual’s life – particularly the censuses from 1850 on in which all the household members were identified by name.  So it always bothers me when an individual or family “goes missing.” Now I do realize that on occasion an individual or family actually was missed by the census taker; but more often than not, the family (or individual) was enumerated but the name was misspelled or misinterpreted or a birth date or age is so far off it that it appears to be a different individual. So I thought that I would list some of the reasons that these elusive ancestors cannot be found with a follow-up post on strategies that can be used to find them.

Now there are a few different online sites available which have searchable census records, and we’ll talk about them more in the follow-on post. But regardless of which online site you use, the census images are only searchable because they have been indexed – and the indexes have been built by humans. The quality and accuracy of the index is dependent on the ability of the people who build it to 1) read/interpret the census images and 2) type that information correctly into the index. If the index does not accurately represent what is on the image, there are transcription errors.

Most transcription errors occur because the person/people who create the index do not interpret what is on the image correctly. This could be because the census image is damaged or faded, the quality of penmanship of the person who wrote the census may be poor or the indexer may not be familiar with old-style cursive script. Also, the indexers are human and even if they read the data correctly, they may type it wrong! Most of the major companies that sponsor the building of the indexes have checks in place that are designed to catch transcription errors, but some always seem to sneak through! In other words, the person being researched is correctly represented on the original census image, but the data in the index is wrong. And since it is the index that is being searched, a match is not found.

The other main reason that families or individuals cannot be found is because they are incorrectly represented on the census form itself. One example of why incorrect information may be on the original image is that the further back we go, fewer people could read and write English. And often their spoken English was heavily accented. So the census taker would write what he heard and the individual was not able to correct him.

Another problem is that the person supplying the information to the census taker may have given him bad information — either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes information was supplied by neighbors or children or extended family members and things like ages, dates and places of birth were “guessed.” In fact, ages are often inaccurate either because they were estimated or intentionally “fudged.” Even last names may have been altered. I have seen quite a few times when the youngest child was born considerably more than nine months after the death of the mother’s deceased husband, yet still carries his name. Often step-children from a mother’s previous marriage were incorrectly enumerated with the name of the current husband. I even have a case where a young girl was living with her older, married sister and was listed with the last name of the sister and her husband.

Another “bad” data problem I’ve run into more than once is that since divorce and separation used to carry quite a stigma, often-times people told the census taker they were single or widowed rather than divorced. This has tripped me up more than a few times because after seeing that the man or woman was widowed, I would not bother to even look for the spouse in another household. It also tends to really throw you off when you’re looking for an obituary or death record in the wrong decade!

Yet another way errors were introduced is that multiple copies of the census were generated to collate and also for different levels of jurisdiction. So errors could have been introduced or lines missed when coping from one form to another. (Remember, there were no scanners or copy machines!)

So the bottom line is that your ancestor may be “hiding” due to a transcription error, bad or inaccurate data on the census form itself or a combination of the two!! Now that we’ve discussed various reasons why we can’t find someone in the census, my next post will contain some strategies for finding them!

UPDATE: If you are interested in some of the strategies I used to successfully find some elusive relatives in the 1920 census, check out my success story here.

Geotagging Tombstone Photos – I wish I would have!

A while back I was going through some cemetery tombstone photos that I took a couple of years ago. I had found out the married name of one of the daughters in a family I research and was hoping that I might have a picture of her tombstone in the background of another photo. I guess I should back up here and mention that the first couple of times I photographed tombstones, I zoomed in on the individual stone – but then I learned to stand back and get a bit of the general area so that I could later go back and see the surrounding graves.  This way if there were many extended family members in a cemetery, it became easier to figure out who’s who when I got back to my computer to look at the photos. I just need to crop and reduce the photos so that just the relevant tombstone is showing for sites like findagrave. I then save the cropped version and also keep the original one for reference.

Anyway, I was going through the original photos, looking at the backgrounds, when I noticed a partly obscured one that related to yet another family I research. Unfortunately, I needed to get back to the cemetery and get another look and another photo because some of  the dates weren’t visible. Oh how I wish I would have had those original photos geotagged!! (See my previous post about this.) Had it been geotagged, the location (lat-long) of where I was standing when I took the original photo would have been stored and available for me to see. Since it was not geotagged it quite literally took me forever to find the obscured tombstone in the background. This pretty much convinced me I need to start geotagging. Even if the location was off by several feet, it would have gotten me to the right vicinity so much sooner!

I bring this up now because I am hoping to get back out to take some more cemetery photographs soon – as soon as the weather warms up. I am sooo tired of winter!