Ancestry.com is packed with all kinds of mostly-undiscovered genealogical treasures, and some of them you’ll never find from a search box.
Here, expert Nancy Hendrickson shares some favorite treasures, tips for finding those treasures, and helpful reminders for improving your genealogy research.
(We provide links for your convenience to the various online resources and some may be affiliate links for which we receive compensation at no additional expense to you. Thank you for your support.)
Ancestry.com is a “genealogy giant:” one of the four biggest global records resources. Whether you subscribe or have free access through your local library or Family History Center, you should not miss exploring this website for your family history.
Ancestry is also a financial investment. If you’ve been using the site for quite a while, you may be wondering if you are really getting all you can out of it’s vast genealogical record collections and many research tools.
Nancy Hendrickson, the author of The Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com and the Unofficial Ancestry.com Workbook: A How-To Manual for Tracing Your Family Tree on the #1 Genealogy Website knows the website inside and out. Today she’s sharing four great tips for taking your research to the next level. In addition, we’ve added in some examples and additional things to consider. So let’s get started using Ancestry more effectively.
Nancy Henrickson, author of the Unofficial Ancestry.com Workbook
4 Tips for Using Ancestry.com More Effectively
1. Verify what you learn.
Any single record can be wrong, incomplete, or misread by you or by the person how indexed it. Double check the assertions made in the record by looking for that same information in additional sources. Be careful to make sure your sources weren’t getting their information from the same person or place. Otherwise, they’ll naturally say the same thing!
Nobody wants to discover conflicting information, of course. But you do want to know if something is inaccurate before it leads you down a wrong research path.
The best thing about verifying facts in additional sources is that sometimes you find NEW or BETTER information such as:
- parents’ names,
- a middle name that proves key to someone’s identity,
- or a burial place.
For example, let’s say you find an ancestor’s death date in the Social Security Death Index. While it’s a great source, don’t stop there!
Like any record, the SSDI is sometimes wrong and the information it contains is definitely limited. Use the Ancestry.com Card Catalog to see what records about death may be on the site for that time and place. You’ll find the Card Catalog under Search in the main menu.
Ancestry Card Catalog
Use the filters on the left side to drill down to death records for the location you want. Remember that records collections have been created on a specific geographical level: try local, regional (such as state or province) as well as national levels.
Using the Card Catalog search filters
2. Don’t just repeat what other people’s trees say.
Seeing the same information over and over can provide a false sense of accuracy. Remember, just because seven different online trees name the same parents for one of your ancestors doesn’t mean those are the correct parents. Those Ancestry users may all be misquoting the same wrong source without actually verifying the information!
You often come across likely matches in others’ trees when you review Ancestry’s automated “leaf” hints, or when you run a general search on a name. When you do, it’s simply an indication that the tree may be worth exploring. Here’s an example:
Exploring Ancestry Hints
Let’s take a closer look at this example.
The purple arrows: You can see that multiple pieces of very specific information are the same on your tree and another one.
The red arrow: You see sources attached to that person’s profile, such as the news article thumbnail image. (Note the difference with the record shown below, with just an empty profile image.) Yes, you will definitely want to review that news article!
The blue arrow: In addition to either of the above, you also see specific information that is unknown to you.
This tree profile looks promising enough you might naturally consider reviewing the tree hint and attaching it to yours. But then you wouldn’t be able to see the news article or other sources attached to that tree.
Instead, click the checkbox and then click the name of the tree to look at it and its attached sources:
Select the tree to review it more closely.
Then you’ll be able to check out the news article along with the other sources and records attached to this person’s profile. You won’t just see what that person thinks about your common ancestor – you’ll see evidence of why she thinks it.
3. Ancestry.com has more than indexed historical documents.
Nancy reminds us that “Ancestry.com is a fantastic resource for old maps, stories, photos, published county histories, and more. For example, looking at the old maps in their collections can reveal the true nature of an ancestor’s daily life, hardships, travels, and more. And your chance of finding early American ancestors is high in county histories: there were fewer people and early settlers were talked about, even if the family wasn’t wealthy or prominent.”
Here are some of Nancy’s favorite collections at Ancestry:
This collection includes nearly 7 million records extracted from about 1,200 county and land ownership maps from across the country. These are indexed by property owners’ names.
According to the collection description, “They also indicate township and county boundaries and can include photos of county officers, landholders, and some buildings and homes.”
Example: Shenandoah Counties, Virginia – included in U.S., Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918
This is a browse-only collection of “more than 2,200 volumes of county and regional histories from California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
An Illustrated Historical Atlas of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, 1878 in the U.S., County and Regional Histories and Atlases, 1804-1984 collection
In them you’ll find history, biographical sketches, maps, business notices, statistics and population numbers, pictures, descriptions of industry and business, stories of early settlement and pioneers, colleges and universities, military history, geography, and plenty of other details.”
Reminder: you can’t search this database by an ancestor’s name. Instead, look for places, and then start reading.
A collection of maps and atlases detailing land areas that comprise the present-day United States and Canada, as well as various other parts of the world. It contains a variety of maps and atlases created for different scopes and purposes, including land ownership atlases and bird’s-eye view maps.
Warrant Plan Records in the Historic Land Ownership and Reference Atlases, 1507-2000 Collection at Ancestry
Land ownership atlases usually show the names of contemporary owners or occupants of land and structures.
Some of the maps depict countries and wider geographical areas, while others depict counties, cities, towns, and smaller geographical areas.
4. Expand your search to the other Ancestry resources on the Web
Ancestry owns a lot of other web resources. Search these too!
Nancy says, “They include Find A Grave, Fold3, and RootsWeb, one of the oldest online genealogy communities around. Don’t give up! Keep looking in other places for the information you want to find.”
Find A Grave
Search results from Ancestry.com do include Find A Grave entries. Many of these contain additional information about the deceased and links to their relatives. As always, be sure to confirm the information you find here.
Fold3 is home to millions of U.S. military records. Ancestry.com subscribers can upgrade their subscription to include Fold3 access, or you can subscribe separately.
RootsWeb is a free and long-lived family history web resource, now hosted by Ancestry.
“The primary purpose and function of RootsWeb.com is to connect people so that they can help each other and share genealogical research,” says the site. “Most resources on RootsWeb.com are designed to facilitate such connections.” You can use RootsWeb in a variety of ways: search it, contribute records, upload your family tree, post your family surnames on a board others can see, and more.
Ancestry has changed one of the ways RootsWeb users have traditionally connected: Mailing Lists. According to the website:
“Beginning March 2nd, 2020 the Mailing Lists functionality on RootsWeb will be discontinued. Users will no longer be able to send outgoing emails or accept incoming emails. Additionally, administration tools will no longer be available to list administrators and mailing lists will be put into an archival state. Administrators may save the email addresses in their list prior to March 2nd. After that, mailing list archives will remain available and searchable on RootsWeb. As an alternative to RootsWeb Mailing Lists, Ancestry message boards are a great option to network with others in the genealogy community. Message boards are available for free with an Ancestry registered account.”
Learn More about Using Ancestry
Nancy Hendrickson’s Book
Nancy shares many more Ancestry tips and treasures in her Unofficial Ancestry.com Workbook. To get the most out of this book read the section on using the Ancestry.com Catalog. Nancy does 95% of her research in the catalog. The workbook is divided into topics, such as military records, so choose a chapter that fits your current goals. It’s also important to not just read the workbook, but also do the exercises. They teach you Nancy’s thought processes for how she finds specific answers or approaches certain types of problems. Then you can apply the same concepts to your own research. Don’t miss the chapter on social history. That’s where you’ll dig into everyday life. And finally, take advantage of the forms that are included. They will help you log your findings and analyze what you’ve learned.
Genealogy Gems Article
Browse-only collections at Ancestry and other genealogy websites are sometimes viewed as inaccessible, but they are actually a hidden treasure. Click here to read How to Find and Browse Unindexed Records at Ancestry – The Better Browsing Checklist. In this article you’ll learn how to access these browse-only collections at Ancestry and expand your family history research.
Read this article by Lisa Louise Cooke at Genealogy Gems
with Lisa Louise Cooke
This episode celebrates the most recent family history there is: our own. A chat between host and producer Lisa Louise Cook and Gems editor Sunny Morton explores the meaning and memories behind heirlooms hanging in Lisa’s bedroom. They comment on the larger value, for self and others, of recording our own memories in honor of Sunny’s new book, Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy.
Also in this episode:
- A spotlight on new marriage records online for the U.S. and around the world.
- Lisa walks a listener through several tips for learning more about her immigrant ancestors (a mother and daughter). Lisa shows how to use today’s technology tools to help with traditional research skills such as locating passenger lists, immigrant society records and naturalization.
- Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard talks about organizing your DNA matches so you can get the most out of them.
- Genealogy Gems Book Club featured author and Victorian lifestyle expert Sarah Chrisman describes what it’s like in her home–which doesn’t use electricity–as the days grow shorter and the darkness comes earlier.
NEW RECORDS ONLINE: Marriage Records
New York City Marriages: a new index to more than 3 million marriage licenses for recent New York City marriages (1950-1995)
Free FamilySearch marriage record collections recently added or updated include:
- Arkansas Church Marriages, 1860-1976
- Nebraska, Box Butte County Marriages, 1887-2015
- Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013
- Tennessee, County Marriages, 1790-1950
- Washington, County Marriages for 1855-2008
- Washington, Marriage Records, 1854-2013
- California, County Marriages, 1850-1952
- New Zealand, Civil Records Indexes, 1800-1896
- Belgium, Antwerp, Civil Registration, 1588-1913; Belgium, East Flanders, Civil Registration, 1541-1914; Belgium, Liège, Civil Registration, 1621-1914; Belgium, Limburg, Civil Registration, 1798-1906
- Nicaragua Civil Registration, 1809-2013
- Russia, Tatarstan Church Books, 1721-1939
- Argentina, Cordoba, Catholic Church Records, 1557-1974
- Sweden, Gävleborg Church Records, 1616-1908; index 1671-1860
Learn more about marriage record research: Listen to Using Marriage Records in Family History: Episode 24 in Lisa Louise Cooke’s free step-by-step podcast, Genealogy: Family History Made Easy.
BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App Users: Finding Copies of Images Online with Google on Your Mobile Device
If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode is an exclusive step-by-step tutorial PDF that shows you how to use your mobile device and Google to locate copies of images online. Remember, the Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users.
MAILBOX: Finding a Female Immigrant Ancestor
Question from Jo: “I have been fortunate to find information about most of my great-grandparents. I have hit a wall with my maternal great grandmother who immigrated from Switzerland to the US in the 1880s when she was 8 years old. I was hoping that by upgrading to International records on Ancestry that I could find the ship and where she and her mother came from. The curious thing for me is that she and her mother traveled solo to the US and went to Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve been to Cincinnati and have searched there and have found directories with addresses but no profession is listed like other people. I didn’t find any ship records either. Where might you suggest that I look or search to find more information?”
Tips for searching passenger arrival lists:
Consider what ports would have been the most logical point of arrival for an immigrant ancestor based on the time period and the U.S. location in which you find them. Cincinnati, Ohio, was reachable by rail by the 1880s from major ports, as well as by water via the Mississippi River for southern ports, so that doesn’t narrow things down much. According to an Ancestry.com article, more than 80% of immigrants arrived at the Port of New York by the 1890s, so Jo might scrutinize those New York passenger arrival lists for the 1880s again.
Free New York City passenger arrival databases at
Search multiple NYC passenger lists simultaneously at Steve Morse’s One-Step web portal
For “deeper” searching at Ancestry.com or other sites with powerful, flexible search interfaces: do a “nameless search” (without any name) for girls around age 8 for arrivals in particular years. Try additional searches with various combinations of name, place of origin (Switzerland) or “Swiss” in the keyword field, which will bring up that word in the ethnicity or nationality column. That column doesn’t have its own search field in Ancestry.com but it is indexed, so use the keyword field to search it.
Research Swiss immigration to Cincinnati during that time period. Who was coming, why they were coming and where they were coming from? Click here for free tips about researching historical questions such as these.
The Swiss in the United States at Internet Archive
Swiss-American Historical Society and Swiss Center: Genealogy
Tips for researching records of immigrant societies:
In the U.S., the time between an immigrant’s arrival and naturalization is often documented in records of ethnic organizations such as fraternal benefit societies, immigrant aid and colonization societies. These kinds of community groups often existed in cities and towns where specific immigrant groups had a strong presence.
Become an expert Google searcher (for genealogy and everything else you want to find online) with The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 2nd edition, by Lisa Louise Cooke. Or click here to get started with basic Google search strategies you can use now.
Tips for researching naturalizations:
Naturalization records from that time period won’t reliably tell you where an ancestor was from. But they’re still worth looking for, especially if census or other records indicated that the person naturalized.
When looking for women’s and children’s naturalization records, remember that during this time period, they automatically became naturalized if their husband or father did, so individual records for married women and minor children won’t exist under their own names. But a woman could apply on her own, too. Click here to read a free article on women’s naturalizations.
Learn more in a free, 3-episode series on immigration and naturalization records: episodes 29-31 in the free, step-by-step Genealogy: Family History Made Easy podcast.
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. In the works: RootsMagic will be fully integrated with Ancestry.com, too: you’ll be able to sync your RootsMagic trees with your Ancestry.com trees and search records on the site.
Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at http://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.
INTERVIEW: Sunny Morton on recording your own life stories
Story of My Life
“Some people about writing their life stories like I do about going to the gym. I put off going, but once I do I remember how much I enjoy it?and how much good it does me.” -Sunny
Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy available as a writeable PDF ebook or as a full-sized softcover workbook
GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB: Sarah Chrisman
This Victorian Life
Featured Genealogy Gems Book Club author Sarah Chrisman describes what it’s like when the days get shorter and the darkness comes early?in a house without electricity.
Legacy Tree Genealogists provides expert genealogy research service that works with your research goals, budget and schedule. The Legacy Tree Discovery package offers 3.5 hours of preliminary analysis and research recommendations: a great choice if you’ve hit a brick wall in your research and could use some expert guidance. Click here to learn more.
GENEALOGY GEMS EXCLUSIVE OFFER: Go to www.legacytree.com/genealogygems and use coupon code SAVE100 with your purchase of research services.
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.
DNA WITH DIAHAN SOUTHARD
Parents spend a good portion of their parenting time ferreting out the real story from their children. One time when Henry was in Kindergarten he was playing outside with another little boy. I was in and out of the house watching him and checking on other things. Hours later I noticed that his bike had been spray-painted black. When confronted, he claimed he had no idea how such a thing could have happened. Unfortunately, I jumped to conclusions and blamed the other kid (you have to give me credit, at six Henry was such a good boy and had such an angelic face with his blue blue eyes and blonde blonde hair). But as I was on the phone with my husband telling him about the issue I looked over at Henry and I saw it- that guilty look and my stomach sank, recalling the things I had said to the other boy’s mom. “I’ll have to call you back,” I told my husband.
As genealogists, we spend our time trying to ferret out the real story from our ancestors, or at least from the records they left behind, because they’re not sitting in front of us with guilty looks on their faces. We are constantly checking family stories against, say, the information on a census record, then comparing it to the family will, then making sure it all agrees with what’s in the military records. And even if we have total agreement, which isn’t always, more information often comes along, like in the form of DNA testing, and we may find even more apparent discrepancies.
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a reporter, Cameron McWhirter, who talks about finding just that kind of discrepancy between his family lore and his DNA. He even goes so far as to say, “I am descended, at least partially, from liars.” And he makes the point that “many immigrants reinvented themselves when they arrived here (the United States),” which could be a nice way of saying they had a chance to INVENT a new legacy, not just reinvent it. His assessments are certainly interesting, and worth reviewing, to help us see how DNA testing can affect the way we look at family stories and traditional research results.
McWhirter may be the classic modern genealogist, never having set foot inside a courthouse or scanned through microfiche, relying instead entirely, he reports, on internet research. Now before you roll your eyes, just stop for a minute and appreciate how exciting this is. Here is a man who never gave his family history a second thought, yet because of the death of his parents started to tinker around a bit, and then due to the large volume of information online “was quickly pulled into the obsessive world of modern genealogical research.” I say, score one for the genealogy world!
What he found was that while his dad was proudly and solidly a self-proclaimed Scot, the records and DNA revealed his heritage was actually from Ireland and eastern Europe. McWhirter says that his “father hated Notre Dame, but judging by my results he could have been one-quarter to one-half Irish. He spoke dismissively of people from Eastern Europe, but part of his genetic code likely came from that region.”
McWhirter’s evaluation of his genetic report includes only his ethnicity results, which as you can hear, were meaningful to him in the way they flew in the face of his father’s prejudices and assertions of his own identity. But the ethnicity results fall short of the point of testing for most genealogists. He might even more powerfully transform his sense of family identity if he took a look at his match list and saw an actual living cousin, for example, a third cousin perhaps who was also descended from his German great-grandmother, who maybe never mentioned that she was also Jewish.
Connecting with other cousins who also have paper trails to our ancestors serves to provide further confidence that we have put all of the pieces together and honored the right ancestor with a spot on our pedigree chart. It’s like we multiply our own research efforts by finding more people like us?literally?who are descended from the same people and interested in finding them. As long as they’re as diligent in their research as we are, of course.
At a recent conference I met a 5th cousin. Even with a connection that distant it was exciting, and it made we want to look again at our connecting ancestors and pause for just a minute to marvel how my DNA verified my paper trail back to them, and that part of them was around, in me, and in my new cousin. To me, THAT’s a bigger picture I want to see?when the paper trail comes together with the DNA trail and turns into real live cousins, even if they turn out to be a little different than the stories and sense of identity that were handed to us when we were young.
Maybe you’re something like Cameron McWhirter: you’ve taken a DNA test, been intrigued (or disappointed) by the ethnicity results, but haven’t yet fully explored all your matches on your list. I’m telling you, you may be seriously missing some opportunities. If that’s you, I may actually have written my new DNA quick guide just for you. It’s called “Next Steps: Working with Your Autosomal DNA Matches.” This guide will teach you how to leverage the power of known relatives who have tested. You’ll get an intro to chromosome browsers and their role in the search process, and access to a free bonus template for evaluating the genealogical relationship of a match in relationship to the predicted genetic relationship. This guide also gives you a methodology for converting UNknown relatives on your match list into known relatives, which is what we’re going for here.
So check it out, either as a solo purchase or as part of my Advanced DNA bundle.
*Update: The Next Steps guide has been replaced with Breaking Down Brick Walls with DNA.
PROFILE AMERICA: Lights Out
Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Amie Tennant, Content Contributor
Vienna Thomas, Audio Editor
Lacey Cooke, Additional Production Support
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