Since Ancestry remains the primary website online for genealogists, I’d like to share a few tips for researching its databases. For the first example, below you’ll see the search page for a typical database, this one for Maryland Marriages, 1667-1899:
Most people would put the names of their ancestors in the search box, and if the search came up empty, they’d conclude the marriage record wasn’t there. That’s a big mistake. First of all, in every database we search, we need to know exactly where the information in the database originated. This means you’ll need to read the area beneath each database that states the source for that data (see it in the image above.) In this case, it is detailed by county, since the compiler, Jordan Dodd, utilized original records. Sometimes the source of a database is a published book, other times its from Family History Center microfilm reels, sometimes its from county courthouses, sometimes its from a state archives.
My relatives in Maryland are from Montgomery County and Somerset County. So, for example, let’s say I was searching for the marriage of a couple who married around 1885, according to the 1900 census. If that search returns without being found, what does that mean? Well, if I read the detailed source information, I would have found that for Somerset County records, this database only covers marriages through 1871:
Likewise, for Montgomery County, the database only covers marriages through 1875:
So even though the title of the database states that the records are through 1899, that range does not mean that every county is covered for those years. Obviously, that is important to know.
Another similar example is shown below in the database for Tennessee Marriages. My primary research county is Hardin County:
The source information informs me that Hardin County is not included in this collection:
The World War I and World War II draft registrations are popular databases on Ancestry. The World War II draft cards capture many African-Americans who moved from the South during the Great Migration. My southern states of research include Tennessee and Florida. Again, reading the source detail for this database reveals important information:
The cards for the states listed above were destroyed. Thus, the only information for my Tennessee and Florida ancestors in this database is for those who had moved North to one of the states covered in the collection.
When searching, we’d also want to note whether a particular database is an index only or whether it is an index with images. Images are always superior, since any transcription introduces the possibility for error. Genealogists should always be in the habit of consulting original records, and though an indexed-entry is helpful, the original record is what we need to examine. So instead of being satisfied with this indexed death in the Tennessee, Deaths and Burials Index:
Nevertheless, if all you have is the index of a record, be sure too write off to the appropriate archives or courthouse to obtain the original record. I’ve stressed the importance of this before in this blog.
Also, I’m still surprised at how many people don’t utilize the free genealogy databases online at Familysearch. They have more county level records, which is what we need after we’ve searched at the state level. Use Familysearch databases in conjunction with Ancestry. For example, Ancestry has a Delaware Death Records database that includes an index and images, through 1933:
One more tip for the road. In the indexed marriage below, I was very interested in the source of this record set since parent’s names (a very valuable piece of data indeed) are included:
So at the bottom of the image, you can see that the source is a Family History Library (FHL) microfilm, reel number 30135. So I logged in to Familysearch.org, and I searched their catalog using that exact film number. When I did, it showed me that the two items below are on that one microfilm reel:
Somerset County, Maryland is adjacent to the county of Accomack in Virginia, so it makes sense that some couples would have married there even though they were from Somerset. I also see the detail above that the Family History Center copied these records at the Virginia State Library. But now that I have learned about this source, I am going to order the microfilm reel and examine it myself for other families. I can do this through my local Family History Center. I frequently do this when Ancestry databases provide a FHL microfilm number.
I hope these few tips will strengthen the research that you do online and help you to focus on the source of the information. And remember that while the Internet is a valuable tool, most of our genealogical research still needs to take place offline and in person at various repositories.