Searching Outside the Box
My research efforts the last few years have been internet based. I'm beginning to get back out on the road starting to use cameras, GPS, portable scanners and mobile devices. I love them. But what has been most valuable to me with internet research has been thinking outside the box when it comes to search terms.
I've needed to get very creative in order to catch sight of my elusive relatives and capture their online information. Half my tree is made up of lovely 20th century immigrants with lovelier Eastern European names. Names they, as well as many census enumerators and immigration officials, had trouble spelling consistently in English. Wildcards, those wonderful symbols that replace one or more letters in a name, have been my salvation. The asterisk will replace up to 5 letters on Ancestry's search engines. A question mark will replace a single letter.
I looked repeatedly for my great-aunt Susanna Pereksta's immigration records. I found nothing until Ancestry.com and Steve Morse's superb One Step pages added the Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934 database. Using “Sus* Per*a” as a search term I found her indexed as Susie Perexta leaving Hamburg on Feb. 1, 1911. Those German indexers were pretty good spelling the Eastern European names. Not so for the American indexers. With a date I was able to search the other databases for an arrival record. When I searched for women with a surname of “Per*a” arriving in February, 1911 I found her. She was indexed as “Luria Peresla” in Ancestry.com's Philadelphia Passenger Lists, 1800-1945 database. I love wildcards. Note that I had to drop her first name to find the record.
Wildcards work differently with Google and other internet search engines. The easiest way to find out what wildcards work with the engines you use is to search! A search of “wildcard search” and the name of the engine I want to use gives me a quick rundown of the options. Google, for instance, does not support the asterisk and question mark symbols in the same way as Ancestry.com. But you can use an asterisk to replace entire words in a phrase or put a search term in quotation marks to search for an exact phrase.
Before Google Books revised its format and restricted searches of many books, I was able to confirm that a Margaret Meredith living in Baltimore in the early 1800s was the widow of one of my husband's distant great-uncles by searching for her with a business name “ “Thomas Meredith * Co.” Margaret Baltimore.” I used the asterisk to allow for and or &. The search led me to a case cited in Monongalia County (West) Virginia, Records of the District, Superior, and County Courts: 1813-1817 by Melba Zinn (Heritage Books, 2009) where Margaret Meredith was named as a partner in the firm after the great-uncle's death.
Another successful search strategy I've used has been to look for names or phrases that are more unique to narrow a search field. I found one of my Pereksta relatives in the 1930 census by searching for their youngest child at the time, their 2 year old daughter Olga. She turned up indexed as Olga Pereskata. Her father was indexed as John Pereskith and had eluded my previous searches.
My husband's ancestor Joseph Jones proved much easier to find when I searched using his daughters' names – Cansada, Brazilla and Talitha. Their names were rarely spelled the same way twice, so I again relied on wildcards. But I got far more targeted results than typing great-grandpa Joe's name.
I'm currently obsessed with searching Old Fulton NY Postcards after one of Caroline's 48 Hour Ephemera Challenges sent me there hunting for information about a dude with a long beard. “Dude with a long beard” didn't get me much, but I realized the collection of early 20th century New York newspapers might have information about my immigrant relatives. This website (as do many others) uses OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to search digital images of the newspapers which can get a little funky. I searched for a family named Tanch and got hundreds of real estate listings for small ranches. Not especially useful. My Sidor/Sedor/Szidor/Citar cousins can be a challenge since they took several generations to settle on a spelling.
Narrowing the searches to a specific city and date range helped, but it wasn't until I added the name of their church that I got useful results – and those results were a goldmine of information about the immigrant community. I stopped using surnames altogether and settled on searching for “St. Michael's” in Binghamton and for a given year. I found wedding announcements, death notices, youth group and fraternal organization activities. I got a sense of the church community that defined my grandparents lives in the United States.
I've used the same strategy to narrow newspaper searches for my Smith in-laws. Even in a small town there are lots and lots of Smiths. Lots. Adding "Dr." or "Catholic" or a street name to the searches has yielded far more useful results.
So get wild, but also get narrow when searching for your kinfolk. Add the name of your father's high school, your grandmother's business, the name of your cousin's college band or prize steer to your search terms. You may be amazed at what you find.
*Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by Jeffrey Beall