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.
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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 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:
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 CardCatalog 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 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.
The mysterious deaths of a father and son present a perfect opportunity for using Google for genealogy.
Recently I heard from Lydia, who has just started listening to my podcasts. She asked a great question that Google can help answer:
“I have two relatives, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, who died under conditions where an inquest was conducted. I wrote to the county clerk’s office in Joplin, MO. They were only able to send me the “bill” for both inquests, stating they had no other information. What I want to know, what they didn’t answer, was are they the ones to ask for the inquest report? If it still exists who would have it?”
She shared their names (both Esterline) and details about their deaths and I just couldn’t help myself: I had to Google them myself. There’s nothing like a couple of mysterious deaths–two generations in a row!–to pique my curiosity.
Here’s the path I took and take-home tips to offer anyone looking for genealogical records:
1) A Google search for: coroner’s inquest 1928 Missouri delivered the Coroner’s Inquest database at the Missouri Digital Heritage archive. From there, you discover that you can request copies of records by emailing the citation for the record you want to the Missouri State Archives at email@example.com. According to the instructions, “The record will be located, the number of pages counted, and you will be notified by email of the cost of the copies. Upon receipt of a check, the copies will be made and mailed to you. There may also be additional notations in the record about other locations where the files can be accessed.” Interestingly, when I searched for her two relatives, I didn’t find them, but there was a file for a woman with the same surname: Esterline. It’s worth seeing if she’s related somehow.
2) I was suspicious about no other Esterlines coming up in the database, so I tried a search in the Archives on Joplin and Jasper to see if other cases from that town or county come up in the results, and they don’t. Further digging reveals: “The Coroner’s Inquest Database project is ongoing; additional counties will be added to the database as completed.” However, it would be very worthwhile to contact them by email and inquire as to where this county is in the queue and where the physical files are now. Another result in that same Google search reveals which counties the Archive currently does have: includes Andrew, Cape Girardeau, Clinton, Cole, Greene, Pemiscot, Perry, St. Charles, St. Francois, St. Louis, and Stoddard (coverage varies by county).
3) After searching a single database on a website like Missouri Digital Heritage, I always look for a global search page, where I can search all databases on the site at once. Missouri Digital Heritage has one here. A search on Esterline brings up not only death certificates (which you probably already have) but city directory entries, newspapers and more.
4) I always recommend that genealogists get to know their record sources. Again, through my Google search I discovered The Laws of Missouri Relating to Inquests and Coroners (1945). This may provide some further insight. And the FamilySearch Wiki is always invaluable. Here’s the page on Missouri Vital Records and it states that “original records are available on microfilm at the Missouri State Archives.”
5) I pretty much always do a quick search specifically at Google Books since they have over 25 million books. I searched Ben Esterline and the first result was a listing in the Annual Report of the Bureau of the Mines (1932) (the year he died!): “FATAL ACCIDENTS— LEAD AND ZINC MINES Ben Esterline, prospector.” The book is not fully digitized in Google Books, but click “Libraries that have it” and you’ll be taken to the card catalog listing in WorldCat which will show you where you can obtain it.
I’m telling you, Google is the most powerful, flexible, furthest-reaching free genealogy search engine out there—and it’s right at our fingertips! But you do need to learn how to use it effectively, or you could find yourself wading through 87,400 results for an ancestor like “Ben Esterline.” Instead, learn the strategies I teach in The Google’s Genealogist Toolbox. This second edition–new in 2015–is fully updated and loaded with techniques and examples on search strategies and tools that help you use Google for genealogy (and everything else in your life!). Click here to order your copy and you’ll start Google searching much smarter, much sooner.
Click the video player to watch episode 54 of Elevenses with Lisa about the 1890 census and substitute records. Below you’ll find the detailed show notes with all the website links I mention. Premium Members will find the downloadable ad-free PDF cheat sheet of these show notes at the bottom of this page in the Resources section, along with my BONUS 1890 Census Gap Worksheet.
What Happened to the 1890 Census
The census shows us our ancestors grouped in families, making it a valuable resource for genealogy. Soon the 1950 census will be available, but for now the most current census publicly available in 1940. In it we may find, depending on our age, ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, and our great parents. In many cases it’s quick and rewarding to make your way back in time to the 1890 census which was taken starting June 1, 1890. And that’s where the trail hits a bump. In January 1921 a large fire broke out in the Commerce Building in Washington DC where the 1890 census records were stored, and most were destroyed as a result. Only 6,160 individual names remain in the remnants. (Learn more about the destruction of the 1890 census at the National Archives.)
Prior to the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, the last census taken was in 1880. With about 99% of the 1890 being destroyed as the result of the fire, this leaves a 20 year gap in the census (1880 – 1900.)
Much can happen in a span of twenty years. For example, your ancestors could have been born and reached adulthood. Filling in their timeline for this period requires a bit more effort, but the results are worth it.
In this video and article we’ll cover:
How to find the remaining fragments of the 1890 population enumeration
What you can learn from the 1890 census records
Lesser known 1890 census schedules that can still be found.
The best 1890 substitute records and how to find them.
Surviving 1890 Federal Census Population Schedules
A very small portion of the 1890 census has survived, but it’s more than just the population schedule. Here are the six types of records still available.
List of the locations covered by the surviving 1890 federal census:
Alabama: Perryville Beat No.11 (Perry County) and Severe Beat No.8 (Perry County)
District of Columbia: Q Street, 13th St., 14th St., R Street, Q Street, Corcoran St., 15th St., S Street, R Street, and Riggs Street, Johnson Avenue, and S Street
Georgia: Columbus (Muscogee County)
Illinois: Mound Township (McDonough County)
Minnesota: Rockford (Wright County)
New Jersey: Jersey City (Hudson County)
New York: Brookhaven Township (Suffolk County) and Eastchester (Westchester County)
North Carolina: South Point and River Bend Townships (Gaston County), Township No. 2 (Cleveland County)
Ohio: Cincinnati (Hamilton County) and Wayne Township (Clinton County)
South Dakota: Jefferson Township (Union County)
Texas: J.P. No. 6, Mountain Peak, Ovilla Precinct (Ellis County), Precinct No. 5 (Hood County), No. 6 and J.P. No. 7 (Rusk County), Trinity Town and Precinct No. 2 (Trinity County), and Kaufman (Kaufman County)
Questions Asked in the 1890 U.S. Federal Census The following questions were asked by the census taker:
Number of families in the house
Number of persons in the house
Number of persons in the family
Relationship to head of family
Race: white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian
Whether married during the year
Total children born to mother
Number of children living
Birthplace of parents
If foreign born, how many years in the United States
Naturalized or in the process of naturalization
Profession, trade, or occupation
Months unemployed during census year
Able to read and write
Speak English; if not, language or dialect spoken
Suffering from acute or chronic disease (if so, name of disease and length of time afflicted)
Defective in mind, sight, hearing, or speech
Crippled, maimed, or deformed (with name of defect)
Prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper
Home is rented or owned by the head or a member of the family
(if so, whether mortgaged)
Head of family a farmer, if he or a family member rented or owned the farm
If mortgaged, the post office address of the owner
2. Schedules for Union Soldiers & Widows
According to the National Archives, “The U.S. Pension Office requested this special enumeration to help Union veterans locate comrades to testify in pension claims and to determine the number of survivors and widows for pension legislation. (Some congressmen also thought it scientifically useful to know the effect of various types of military service upon veterans’ longevity.) To assist in the enumeration, the Pension Office prepared a list of veterans’ names and addresses from their files and from available military records held by the U.S. War Department.
Index and images of schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of veterans of the Civil War for the states of Kentucky through Wyoming. Except for some miscellaneous returns, data for the states of Alabama through Kansas do not exist. Some returns include U.S. Naval Vessels and Navy Yards. The schedules are from Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration and is NARA publication M123.
Nearly all of the schedules for the states of Alabama through Kansas and approximately half of those for Kentucky appear to have been destroyed before transfer of the remaining schedules to the National Archives in 1943.”
The 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census lists people who lived in the Oklahoma Territory. The seven counties making up the Oklahoma Territory at the time are listed below. Note the number as they were often listed only by these number on the census.
One of the primary uses of the census by the government is to compile statistical reports using the data gathered. Many of these can be found online at places like Google Books.
The Delaware African American Schedule came about because of one of these statistical reports. According to the National Archives, in 1901 the Chief Statistician for Agriculture wrote a report about agriculture in the state of Delaware. Just before it was to be published, some of the conclusions reached in the report were disputed. The controversy centered around what was then referred to as “Negro” farmers. The results was that additional research was conducted in an effort to find all “Negro” farmers in the 1890 and 1900 Delaware census records. The dust up over the statistical report was fortunate indeed because these records are now available.
The list is roughly in alphabetical order according to surname and contains the following information:
Enumeration District (ED) Number
ED Description (locality and county)
5. Statistics of Lutheran Congregation & Statistical Information for the U.S.
These record collection offers limited usefulness because they don’t name people. However, if you have questions about Lutheran ancestors around 1890 or would like more contextual information about the time period, they might be worth a look.
Statistics of Lutheran Congregation reproduces a list of each Lutheran church or local organization compiled by the Census Office from information submitted by officials of the Lutheran officials.
How to find the records:
The National Archives – Contact the National Archives regarding National Archives Microfilm Publication M2073, Statistics of Congregations of Lutheran Synods, 1890 (1 roll). Records are arranged by synod, then state, then locality.
For each church or local organization, the following information is given in seven columns:
(1) town or city
(3) name of organization
(4) number or type of church edifice
(5) seating capacity
(6) value of church property
(7) number of members.
6. Statistical information for the entire United States
Statistical reports were compiled and analyzed by the Census Office after the 1890 census was completed. These massive statistical reports are available in National Archives Microfilm Publication T825, Publications of the Bureau of the Census.
Now that we’ve scoured every inch of available records remaining from the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, it’s time to go on the hunt for substitute records. We’ll be focusing on the best available and easiest to find resources.
1885 & 1895 State Census Records:
The U.S. federal government was not alone in taking the census. Some states also took their own state census. These were usually conducted in the years between the federal censuses, most commonly on the “5” such as 1875, and 1885. You may find some as far back as 1825 and as recent as 1925, as in the case of the state of New York.
How to find the records:
Look for state census records at state archives, state historical societies, and state libraries. Many are also conveniently searchable online, most commonly at FamilySearch (free) and Ancestry (subscription.)
Lisa’s Pro Tip: Get a Bit More with Mortality Schedules
Do you happen to have someone in your family tree who was alive and well in the 1880 census but nowhere to be found in the 1900 census? Official death records may not have been available during this time frame where they lived, compounding the problem.
The U.S. Federal Censuses from 1850-1880 included a mortality schedule counting the people who had died in the previous year. Since the 1880 census began on June 1, “previous year” means the 12 months preceding June 1, or June 1 (of the previous year) to May 31 (of the census year).
Ancestry has a database of these schedules which fall just before the 20 year time frame we are trying to fill. However, this collection also happens to include Mortality Schedules from three State Censuses: Colorado, Florida and Nebraska. There were conducted in 1885. They weren’t mandatory so there are only a few, but if you happen to be researching in one of these states, you just might get lucky.
While you’re searching, be aware that not all of the information recorded on the census is included in the searchable index. This means that it is important to view the image and don’t just rely on the indexed information.
Ancestry 1890 Census Substitute Database
Ancestry has compiled a special searchable collection of records that can be used to fill in the gaps left behind by the loss of the 1890 census. It includes state census collections, city directories, voter registrations and more.
Find More 1890 Census Substitute Records at Ancestry
This substitute collection is a tremendous help, but don’t stop there. You can also manually hunt for substitute records to see if there might be something helpful that is overlooked in the 1890 census substitute search. This works particularly well if you have a specific research question in mind.
You might be wondering, why would I need to search manually? Many people rely on Ancestry hints to alert them to applicable records, and they figure the search engine will find the rest.
This is a mistake for two reasons.
only approximately 10% of Ancestry® Records Appear as hints.
There may be a record that meets your needs that was not captured in the 1890 Census Substitute Collection. Try going directly to the Card Catalog and filtering to USA and then by decade such as 1890s.
FamilySearch 1890 Census Substitutes
While FamilySearch doesn’t have one massive substitute database, you can find several focused 1890 census substitute collections available online, at Family History Centers around the country and world, and in book form at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
How to find the records: 1. Go to FamilySearch 2. Log into your free account
3. In the menu go to Search > Catalog 4. Click Titles 5. Search for 1890 census substitute 6. If desired, filter down to records available or at a Family History Center near you.
City Directories as an 1890 Census Substitute
Some of the best and most comprehensive substitute records are city directories. If published in your ancestor’s area when they lived there, they can offer a year-by-year record. And that can do wonders for filling in the gap between the 1880 and 1800 census.
How to find the records:
You can find city directories at the big genealogy websites like Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch, as well as state archives, historical societies and libraries. Google searches also come in very handy in unearthing lesser known websites and repositories. Two of my favorite places to look that are both free and online are Google Books and Internet Archive.
Google Books Search for the state and county. On the results page click the Tools The first option in the drop-down menu will be Any View. Change it to Full View. The third option is Any Time. Click the down arrow and select Custom Range and set it to 1880 through 1890.
Episode 30: Lisa’s 10 surprising things to find at Google Books