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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: My People Aren't Online
by Rhonda R. McClure

May 22, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

As I was going through my e-mail recently, looking for questions to answer in this week's Rhonda's Tips, I was struck by how many people began their messages with some sentence that alluded to all the time they had spent online looking for the relative or ancestor in question. There were many that had recently purchased the Family Tree Maker software and they wondered why it couldn't be used for non-American research. I have to assume that they are questioning the variety of databases they found in their special offer of free time in the subscriptions as opposed to the program itself.

What is this assumption that research should be begun online, or worse still, that everything can be found online? I wondered if somehow I had contributed to this misunderstanding about what the Internet has and what must be known to make an effective search of the Internet.

The Internet is not all encompassing.

What Should I Already Know?

Like any other resource or record I am using in my genealogical research, the more I know about an individual the more likely I am to succeed in my search. If I know only the name of my ancestor and have nothing else to identify him with, other than the name of the child I descend from, it is probable that I will not have enough information to be able to say that a person with the same name is beyond a doubt the person I am seeking.

This is why working from the known to the unknown is important. In fact, I consider it to be more important when I am researching on the Internet. Because so many of the websites I find online have compiled the individuals or drawn conclusions from other records, I must have a good working foundation about the individual in question to evaluate what I am finding online and decide if it is worth pursuing.

Ideally I need to know:

  • the name of the person in question—including the maiden name if I am researching a woman
  • dates of events for this person,
  • places of events,
  • the name of the spouse,
  • the names of more than just the one child I descend from

There are a few databases, such as the Social Security Death Index in which knowing some of the above information is not going to be helpful. While the SSDI does not actually list the places of birth and death, knowing the dates of birth and death will help narrow the list of individuals in the SSDI considerably, even if it is a common name.

The Forest for the Trees

Other times our defeat is the result of not being able to see the forest for the trees. There are times when we are so concerned with a single individual that we don't think to look for siblings, parents, or children. Instead we continue to plug in the same name over and over as we go from database to database, getting more frustrated with each new negative result.

Instead of looking just for your ancestor, when you begin to see a pattern emerging with the results in the different databases, begin to search for others associated with your ancestor. Know the names of some of the siblings, especially brothers if you are searching for a woman? Try searching on the name of the brother instead. Often the women are overlooked in genealogical research, but you may pick up an abundance of information and perhaps some generations when searching on the brother's name.

Other times, especially if the name of my ancestor is too common and I cannot discern if the hits I am finding are my ancestor, then I search on the spouse instead. I also take my search out of the compiled databases such as World Family Tree and the digitized subscriptions and begin to look out in the general search engines as well. Too often we limit our research to just the genealogical databases because our more recent relative is mentioned in a published school newsletter that is now available online, or because we expect that the gold mine will be found through a site full of transcriptions. I have found information about spouses and siblings this way.

Be Prepared

To borrow the motto of the Boy Scouts, who, by the way, have a merit badge in genealogy, we must always be prepared. The more you know about each generation leading up to the individual you are having trouble finding online, the more opportunities you have to search in a different direction.

Being prepared extends beyond knowing about your family up to that point. You also need to know about the databases you are searching. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the database? If you are looking for a living relative in the International Genealogical Index at FamilySearch, for instance, then you will come up empty-handed, since this database includes only those individuals who are deceased.

If you are trying to find your father as a child in the 1910 census index on Genealogy.com, here again you will come up empty handed. Knowing that the 1910 census is indexed for only for heads of households and those few individuals whose last names differed from the others in the household would explain why your father does not show up. As a result you would need to change your research tactic to either use the process of first selecting the state and then the surname—if you did not know the name of your grandfather—or running a search on the grandfather's name. You might also find, because of the many possible spelling variations, that a page-by-page search of the township or county in question would actually be a better approach

Also, it is important to remember that those databases that offer you many fields to put information into may be giving you the opportunity to supply more information than the database has about your ancestor. The SSDI is a good example of this. The Master Death File from which the SSDI comes from has all the information that the Social Security Administration knows about the person. In some instances supplying a full birth date instead of just the year of birth may exclude the person. Knowing that the death residence is not always the place of death is another example how a search in the SSDI could come up empty-handed.

In Conclusion

Of course there will still be times when, despite trying all that I have suggested, you will still come up empty-handed. There is still so much that hasn't been made available on the Internet, and I suspect there is some information that never will be available online. However, as the Internet continues to grow we continue to find ancestors we thought were hopeless before, and a search that comes up empty today may offer results next month or next year. In the end, combining all the different resources and record types (of which the Internet is just one) is what we really need to do. There will still be a few brick walls along the way, but if this were all easy there would be no fun in the search.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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