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Genealogical Research Tips

I have three goals for this Research Tips page. First, I am hoping it will serve as a resource for those members of my family who are embarking on genealogical research, and do not have the time or the patience required to do a lot of formal reading about how to do effective genealogical research.
Secondly, I also intend to post some tips here based on things I have learned when doing my own research, which are important factors which family history researchers need to know.

Third, I have posted information about where to get free help, so you know where to easily get help, instead of giving up when and if you get stuck trying to find your ancestors or living relatives. See our free resources page for more ideas about where to search, as well as the section below about where to get help. Of course, if you are a member of my family, you also can ask me for ideas as well.

Please note that I have no intention of vying with the professionals in writing this page. There are many excellent on-line tutorials as well as books about doing genealogical research. The following two webpages have many, many helpful articles, which I strongly recommend reading if you have the time and patience needed for more study. Genealogy for Beginners - One Stop Guide to Tracing Your Family Tree Step by Step Guide to Tracing Your Family Tree

If your time and patience are limited, and you are relatively new to doing genealogy online, our page about finding your ancestors may help to get you oriented quickly.


The best way to start researching your ancestry is to start looking for records for the most recent ancestors whose names you know. Census records, city directories, and birth, marriage and death records can tell you a lot about your ancestors and their parents and siblings.

But those records may not be easy to find, especially if the people you are looking for records for used different names or spellings of their names at different points in their lives. But, even if the ancestors you are searching for information about kept the same names throughout their lifetimes, the records you would expect to find easily may not seem to be there!

This can be for a variety of reasons, including poor handwriting on the original records as well as mistranscription and clerical errors and misspellings. If you have used online genealogy databases, you probably know that such misspellings and mistranscriptions of names are not likely to be found by the typical fuzzy search systems such as Soundex and Metaphone.

So, if you are like me, you also will try searching for your ancestors by using alternate spellings. But often a particular record for the person you are looking for still does not appear in the search results, and you are quite sure they should be in the records.

I think most of us assume that handwritten records such as the Census Records are digitalized by keypunchers, sitting typing all day, but I recently was told by a Technical Support employee at Ancestry.Com, that the digitalization is performed by highly sophisticated optical character recognition (OCR) software.

What this means for us is that many alternate transcriptions and spellings of the names found, in the databases we search, will be based on the shapes of the letters rather than the sounds in the name, and I doubt anyone has yet devised the equivalent of Soundex for shapes of the letters of the alphabet.

Capital I, L, and T and J, all look very similar, for example, with neat little curls and loops at both the top and bottom in the script used in England, which appears in the British Census and Birth Records of the 1800's which I have viewed.

In my family, for example, the name Shirrel was transcribed as Ninel in the 1930 U.S. Census, Cohen was written as Cahen in 1910, Rubeun was transcribed as Pubeun in 1930, and Tennebaum was transcribed as "Tennsham" in the 1910 census.

Speaking of names, my ancestor Rachel Tennebaum called herself Mrs. Israel Tennebaum, and the Census taker in 1930 did not obtain her true first name, so she herself did not show up in our searches. Her husband Israel had passed away in 1922, so it seemed a bit odd to find Israel Tennebaum in the 1930 census in San Francisco, until I saw that the census taker did record Israel to be the "mother in law" of the head of the household and her sex to be "F" for female.

As another example, we spent over a year trying to find the birth record and 1871 British Census for Jane Jacobs. Jane is a much too common name for me to have done a search on first name alone. So, the way I finally found her was by searching on first name alone, for her brother who was born in Russia. I searched for all males by the name of Samuel, born in Russia, about 1865, and there he was, Samuel Jacob, along with the rest of our family, in the 1871 census.

What happened? It turned out that the family surname was not Jacobs, with the letter "S" at the end, but was recorded as Jacob in the records I was seeking, without the letter "S". And, Soundex will not generally turn up surnames which have a different consonant in them.

So, other than make sure the "Exact Matches" box is not checked off, and try many, many spellings one at a time, what can you do? Instead, try using wild card characters with "Exact Matches".

A question mark "?" can be used to take the place of any single character. So, entering "Ros?" will give you all the entries for "Rose," "Rosy," and for "Rosa". Entering "Ann?" will give you entries for all "Anna", "Anne", and "Anny". Entering "Wein?immer" will give you all the entries for "Weingimmer", "Weinsimmer" and for "Weinzimmer". Entering "Vishn?ck" will give you all the entries for "Vishnack," "Vishneck," "Vishnick," "Vishnock," and for "Vishnuck". At, this previously would not work for any of the first three characters, and would ONLY work if you check the "Exact Matches" box. While it still is necessary to tick the "Exact Matches" box, it now is possible to use wildcards for any character except the very first one.

An asterisk "*" can be used to take the place of any group of characters. So, entering "Ros*" will give you all the entries for "Rose," "Rosy," and for "Rosa," but also "Rosie," "Rosey," "Roseanne," and for "Rosita," as well as all entries with a middle initial, such as "Rose L," "Rose A," and "Rosarita R." Entering "Joh*" will give you all the entries many names starting "Joh", including "John", "Johns", "Johanson," "Johnson", and "Johanovitch". Entering "Vishn*" will give you all the entries for "Vishnack," "Vishneck," "Vishnick," "Vishnock," and for "Vishnuck", but also all the entries, for example, for "Vishnaik," "Vishnek," "Vishnewsky," "Vishnewski," and for "Vishne". At, however, you must specify the first three characters, and will ONLY work if you check the "Exact Matches" box. But again, while it still is necessary to tick the "Exact Matches" box, it now is possible to use wildcards for any character except the very first one.

The catch is that you do need to put in about 3 or 4 more characters somewhere in the name, or you will get a "Global Search Results" page with no hits. This has been extremely helpful in finding elusive records that have been totally misspelled or mistranscribed in our Weinzimmer research. This Polish name can be spelled many ways when rendered in English, so we have found many more records by searching for "W*n*mer."

If you are searching for records originally created in a language other than English, especially those created over a hundred years ago, the challenges are even greater. If you are lucky, the original passenger lists and vital records contain the name exactly as you believe it would have been written, and the name was properly transcribed for online searches.

But it is often the case that the original document had the name spelled totally differently than you have been told or seen in other records. In this case, creative searching using wildcard characters and an open mind are musts. Who would ever have dreamed that Yisrael Hirsch Weinzimmer and Risie Sherman's names were indexed in their Polish marriage record as Josk Wejcymer and Rejza Szerman? I never would have found that using the above wild card search, "W*n*mer." I am not sure how I found it, but the one thing I can be sure of, is no combination of basic consonents is something we can count on in early records.


Many of our family members do not seem to have known exactly when or where they were born or married, or when their parents passed away. This could be due to a number of reasons. If they were born before 1900, they may not actually have known, especially if the family was not concerned with keeping track of such things. In many cases, civil registration of births was not required until the late 1800's or early 1900's.

However, our ancestors may also have known exactly when they were born, but only according to a different calendar than the Gregorian calendar we currently use. Various ethnic groups and cultures have their own calendars. There are, to name just a few, the Russian Orthodox, Hebrew, and Chinese calendars, for example.

There also are cases where the ages, birth or immigration years shown in records are simply guesses by people who do not know or remember. And, sometimes people lied about their ages or those of their children for various reasons, whether it be to obtain a cheaper fare when travelling, to minimize the apparent difference in age from their spouse, to avoid military conscription or draft, or to qualify sooner for retirement benefits.

Anyhow, in trying to determine when our ancestors really were born or died, I wondered which data source(s), are the most reliable, other than a copy of the actual birth certificate, which you cannot exactly get easily if you do not know date and location. So, I called the local Death Registrar's Office, as well as the Social Security Administration, to find out where they obtain information about the dates of birth and, in California, the mother's maiden name.

I found out that the information in the California Death Index about birthdate and names of the deceased parents are provided to the State by the mortuary, when they report the death to the Health Department. The information they have is, in turn, provided by whoever makes arrangements for the burial. In some cases, this information will have been provided as part of estate planning, by the deceased. In other cases, it will be obtained from surviving relatives. So, the State Death Indexes are probably more reliable resources for date and place of death, but not necessarily reliable indicators of actual birthdate or location.

The information in the Social Security Index, on the other hand, is probably a more reliable indicator of birth information than of death information. The Social Security Administration requires a birth certificate before a Social Security Card will be issued. However, in those cases where no birth certificate can be obtained, they will accept other official documents such as passports, especially for the foreign-born. So accuracy may not be 100% with regards to birth information, but should be pretty close.

However, death information from the Social Security Administration is a function of when someone gets around to reporting the death, and what they remember at that time. If the deceased is not receiving benefits, or their checks are on automatic deposit, it may take a while before the bureaucracy catches up with itself and records the death.

For more information about finding birth information, see the introduction to our free birth records information page.


Believe it or not, census and other records often indicate that people were born in a different place they were actually born. This might be because they do not know, because they were born in a small town or village that most people have never heard of, or because the ruling government of that area changed over time. It also can happen if the census taker or informant was confused.

This can make finding ancestors in historical records extremely difficult, because every record you find for that specific person may have a different place of birth listed. So, before you decide that the John Schmidt you find in the 1910 Census who says he was born in Russia, is a different John Schmidt than the one born in Poland according to the 1900 Census, study the other information you have more carefully.

And don't limit your searches by place of birth if you are having trouble finding a relative. I gave the example above of Jane Jacobs. It turned out that she was born in Manchester. But, we were not finding her in earlier records, in part because we were looking for Jane's born in Liverpool, which is where she was supposed to have been born according to the 1881 British Census. The census was wrong, and we now have her birth certificate as proof of that fact. The family moved around a lot, and her younger brother was born in Liverpool, so it was an easy mistake for the person answering the census taker's questions to make.

We go into greater detail about ways to identify someone's place of birth in the introduction to our free birth records information page, but my favorite resources for finding the towns where our immigrant ancestors were born are passenger lists and naturalization records, if I can find them. And, for men born between 1872 and 1900, World War 1 Draft Registration Cards are a great resource.


Have you ever gotten frustrated when you can't find anything about your ancestors or living relatives on the web? Do you consider yourself inept at searching? Well, don't despair. There are some very simple things, explained below, which you can do that may just help you to easily find those relatives. If the suggestions below do not fulfill your needs, you may also wish to visit our finding aid page for additional tips.

First of all, don't assume that the search engine you normally use is thorough. If you do not find the information you are looking for, you should try using a different search engine before you give up. Instead of, for example, using Yahoo, try using Google. Or try using a "meta" search engine such as These meta search engines search all the other big search engines for you, and may turn up information via a search engine you have never even thought of using.

Secondly, if you are looking for a particular person, don't just write their name as John Doe. Instead, I recommend you try one of the following:

*   If you are using Google, then enter the name with quotes around it, for example, as "John Doe". The quotes tell Google that you want the words to appear together on the page. Otherwise, you will get lots of pages that don't contain John Doe, but do have John's and Doe's. If that doesn't work, then try entering the name as "Doe, John" in quotes, so pages containing your relative in an alphabetical list can be found. Better yet, use the "OR" operator as a command, so Google will look for both possibilities at the same time, as in the following:
     "John Doe" OR "Doe John"
Make sure you alphabetize the "OR" so Google will know you intend it as a command and not as a word to look for.
*   If you are using a search engine, such as Yahoo, that does not recognize the "OR" operator, then search twice, once for "John Doe" and once for "Doe John".

If the results turn up the wrong kinds of pages, limit your search by adding one or two additional basic family history keywords such as "family," "mother," "father," "genealogy." You still might turn up the website of a family law office, but you won't turn up pages that do not contain your keywords, unless the pages have been revised since the last time the search engine's robot visited the website.

If you still get too many results that are not what you are looking for, try adding one or more keywords with specific information about your relative. Add the name of the country where your relative was born or lived. Or add his or her occupation to the list of search terms.

Just remember that too many or the wrong keywords can keep you from finding information about your ancestors, so play around with various combinations, only limiting the search if absolutely necessary.

If you want to learn more about how to perform effective family history searches on the web, you could take a free computer class, such as those given at adult education and senior centers.

Or, you could join or read the archives for the genealogy hints mailing list about performing more effective genealogy searches using google's search engine. You can subscribe by sending an email with just the word "subscribe" in the subject line to, or read the mailing list archives at The mailing list home page is at

Note if you have trouble getting the main Archives or Mailing List pages for Rootsweb Mailing lists to respond, try doing a google or other web search engine search, for your area of interest, including the keyword "" along with the name of the state, province, county or city of interest, and that may take you to a page with a direct link to the page to join an appropriate list.

If you do not want to use email to ask questions, one of the free online forums might be a perfect place for you to post and get assistance with your query. See the next section for information about online genealogy forums.


There are many great resources available that can connect you with people who will help you with your family history quest for free. I prefer using mailing lists, but you can post queries at online forums or join local genealogy groups as well. Even if you do not wish to post queries in public, subscribing to mailing lists is an excellent way to learn what kinds of records are available for particular locations, by simply reading the questions and answers others post to the mailing lists.

If you don't mind posting your questions in public, then I strongly recommend joining one or more appropriate mailing lists at to get help. You can join mailing lists that focus on a specific surname or location, or on a specific ethnic or genealogical group or issue. The rootsweb archives are open to all at The big advantage of joining free public mailing lists and free forums is the information is available and accessible to all, and if any of your extended family members happen to be searching the web for the fun of it, they may just find your post(s) and decide to join to get in touch with you. And, more importantly, mailing list posts reach subscribers without their having to go out of the way to "visit" a forum.

If you are researching Jewish ancestry, is a free website which also has many excellent mailing lists that focus on particular topics and locales. Their mailing lists are called Discussion Groups, and the discussion group archives are available to all members of JewishGen.

If you prefer to join a private mailing list, check out the mailing lists at One of the advantages of Yahoo Groups is you can choose to post and reply online, without receiving list email. People using a web search engine will not be able to find your posts if you join a yahoo group which is a members-only list, so you will have a little more privacy, but at the risk that other researchers will not find you if they do not belong to that particular group.

If you prefer posting your questions in a forum, where you may be able to hide your email address from others, then one of the free online forums might be a perfect place for you to post and get assistance with your query. Unfortunately, all are a little more complex to sign up for and figure out than simply signing up for a mailing list, but they may be worth the effort if you do not want to join a mailing list.

Consider joining,, *,, or Also check out the free online genealogy forums at and

Another possibility, which is probably but not necessarily free (I am not sure), is One problem to consider when posting at Ancestry's Boards is people without paid memberships generally are not able to contact others privately who have posted, as Ancestry's Message Center service is not open to unpaid members. Paid members can send messages to those who post, but unpaid members cannot initiate contact.

While you might be tempted to just post queries at social networking sites such as Facebook, remember that not everyone can get access to or trusts those groups, so think carefully about the accessibility to others of the places you choose to get help. In the case of mailing lists, study how active the list is, if it has been dormant for months, it may not be the best place to get immediate help.

Note that a few people have had problems getting registered at RootsChat because they do not receive their activation emails. If this happens to you, please feel free to email us. and we will help you with that process.

While there are pro's and con's for all the sites listed above, we wanted to give you lots of choices so you can pick the forums or mailing lists that are best for your needs. We have a wonderfully helpful online community of fellow genealogy researchers, both newcomers and oldtimers, and hope you will find your experiences in asking for help to be as rewarding for you as they have been for us.

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Revised November 11, 2018

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