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Systematic Research

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Systematic Research

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(I first wrote this, in a slightly different form, as a message to the RootsWeb Mailing lists I belong to. It is longer than a "Hint to Heloise" snippet, but shorter than a comprehensive guide to Genealogical research on the Internet.)

In a nutshell: when I start a new line or get some more ancestors, I make a list of everyone I want to check and every web site I want to check them on, using Excel. The checking may take several weeks. The Excel file helps me remember who I have looked for, and where. That was the nutshell. The rest of this is the same idea in a watermelon rind. If you want to bail out now, (there are some horrible puns ahead) pick something from the navigationbar to your left.

This may be old hat to some of you. "What's he going to invent next, fire?" you may ask yourselves, with a wry, ironic chuckle. But, if you haven't thought of it and are interested, read on.

To start, you need a text file of the people in question in the form surname, comma, given names, commas, birthdate. The commas are important. All good genealogy programs will let you format a custom report of selected individuals and print to a text file instead of paper. You may have to read the help if you've never printed to a file instead of paper. You will probably have to make the commas between the given name column and birth date column a literal. My genealogy program, Family Origins for Windows, calls a literal a "Text Field".

Next, tell Excel (or whatever spreadsheet program you use) to open the custom report as a comma-delimited text file. Comma delimited means the data that will go in each column is separated by a comma. One of your ancestors may have been "Ed" and another saddled with "Adolphus Benjamin Charles", but the comma tells Excel those are the given names, regardless of the length. That is, this:

Simth, Ed, 1855
Smith, Adolphus Benjamin Charles, 1856


Smith Ed 1855
Smith Adolphus Benjamin Charles 1856

Since you had a comma between the surname and given names, and between the given names and birth date, you now have a spreadsheet with three columns - surname, given names and birth date. They will be columns A, B, and C. The birth dates help on some search engines, and help you determine which Polly Smith you are looking for.

Insert a row at the top for a heading. Fill in the heading row for columns D onward with the places you want to look, on the web and elsewhere. Then, once you check a person on a site, put an "X" in their row for that column. You could do the same in Word or even with a sheet of paper, a #2 pencil and a ruler, but Excel has some nice features. It lets you freeze panes and hide either rows or columns. When you re-open the file, it will come up in the spot you left off the last time you saved and closed. This is particularly handy when your checking takes more than one session. Excel lets you sort the data. I find it easier to ALT+TAB from browser to Excel to my genealogy program than to look back and forth from paper to screen, too.

Now, assuming your ancestors were puckish and omitting some column headings for brevity, you have a spreadsheet that looks like this. Note that I abbreviate; "MA Sur" is short for "Mailing list Archives - Surname".

  A B C D E F G
1 Surname Given Names Birth Year LDS RW WC MA Sur MA Cnty
2 Bellum Sarah 1832        
3 Boyles Lance (MD) 1862        
4 Brakes Don 1892        

My first eleven columns are always the same - basic web sites everyone should have in their bookmarks. The rest of this page describes them and the strategies I use.

The LDS megasite.
If someone's name is common I try different combinations; name plus birth year, name without birth year but with parents' names, name without birth year but wirh spouse's name. Their search engine is awfully smart; I once found a lady who I entered as "Mary", and they had as "Polly". The Mormons have "Sounds like" as a default. I always get PECK and PIKE when I look for PACK, unless I click the "Exact Spelling" box.

If you find someone on the IGI, you can usually find everyone else with that surname who is on the same document. Copy the film number but click on the batch number. You'll get a screen devoted solely to IGI entries, with the batch number and region already filled in. Enter the surname alone. If you get too many, you can limit the search by filling in the father and mother's names. Try it again with the film number, which you copied, and the batch number blank.

RootsWeb World Connect / Ancestry World Trees
RootsWeb does the opposite of the Mormons. They have exact spelling as the default. If you don't get any hits on the exact search, try using the soundex option and checking the little box at the bottom that says "Fuzzy Logic".

RootsWeb Surname Mailing List Archives
Enter the surname. If it can't find it, they will show you a link to all the surnames they do have, and you can try one that is close. We WILKEN researchers had to make do with the WILKIN list for a long time, for instance. WILKENS researchers are still stuck with us singular types.

Once you get the mailing list, you have to enter an argument in the search box and pick a year. Make sure you search all of the years. Since every post to the WILKEN surname list will be about the WILKEN family, if you search for WILKEN in it you'll get more hits than you want. The best bet is to search for a spouse's name, if you have one. County names (or even city names) and given names work too. The search is exact, so if you use a spouse's surname, try alternate spellings.

RootsWeb County Mailing List archives
You'll notice the starting point is the same as the Surname mailing list. All the county mailing list names are eight characters or less. The first two are the state abbreviation, the next six are the county name, or as much as will fit; Monroe County, West Virginia is WVMONROE and Stanislaus County, California is CASTANIS. Searching the county archives is a little different, too. Not everyone in the WVMONROE archives is a PACK, so it makes sense to search for PACK in them.

Most of my ancestors were born in one county, married in a second, and died in a third. They kept moving west. (Whether they were drawn by the lure of the wide frontier or pushed by their old neighbors is subject to debate.) I find it easier to make a short list of likely counties, find each county's mailing list and search for two or three surnames at a time, using the OR argument. You can make a second spreadsheet specifically for county searches. Just remember to have everyone listed three times, once each for his/her birth, marriage and death.

GenForum surname pages
Their search engine works only on the forum in question, not across all forums, although they keep trying to get it to work globally. Again, search for a given name, spouse or county, not the surname itself.

GenForum county pages
Each state forum has thousands of queries with headings like "Smith family - please help", "Searching for family" or "Grandfather". Pass them by and click on the link labeled "Counties for this state". Find the one(s) you need and search by surname.

US Gen Web County Pages
Many have a search engine. Some can take weeks to explore, if a lot of volunteers donated data. By now you should have a good idea of which counties you should focus on.

Family History Boards
(Counts as two of the eleven - Surname and County)Their global search engine does work, so my first try is always the person plus the spouse. In the box labeled "Messages" I put, for instance, +McCorkle +Pomeroy to see if anyone else has asked about a McCorkle- Pomeroy marriage. Their search engine needs the plus signs, and it seems to be case-sensitive. To be really sure, you should try it three ways; all caps, all lower, and regular. After that, use the "Find a board" feature for a surname or a county and search them.

Gen Circles
Most people who have uploaded their data here have also uploaded it elsewhere. I put it here because it isn't as widely known as it should be. Their claim to fame is a matching service. After you upload your GEDCOM, they will match it against everyone else's GEDCOM and list the individuals you have in common. After (if) you upload your data to GenCircles, wait a day or two and then go check the matches.

Some families lend themselves to different web sites. RootsWeb has a mailing list for seven counties in Southern West Virginia, for instance. Cliff Lamere, one of the mainstays of the NY Columbia County mailing list, has a glorious web site for the counties around Albany, NY. The state of Illinois has a register of Civil War soldiers, and another of early marriages. Columns are easy to add. You could also put columns for census look-ups, land deeds, cemetery records and so on.

Note that if you find someone new - a spouse, for instance - you should add him/her to the list and check her/him against the places you've checked everyone else already. Having everyone in alphabetical order helps a lot, so re-sort your spreadsheet every once in a while to put the new people in their proper place.

That's about it. Feel free to write if you have questions.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014