Friday, August 16, 2013

Searching Successfully to Reveal Your Ancestor’s Story

At the 2013 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy, Crista Cowan gave a presentation titled, “Searching Successfully to Reveal Your Ancestor’s Story.” Cowan “the Barefoot Genealogist” at She has a live internet show every Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 11:00 AM mountain time. You can watch it live or archived at Archived episodes are also available at Cowan has been with for nine-and-a-half years.

Cowan began with a couple of points. has a privacy rule. Living people are considered private. People are considered living as long as birth dates are within the last 100 years and there is nothing in the death date field. (I wonder what put “living” in the death date field does? In FamilySearch Family Tree, having anything in the death date field, including “living” makes the system assume the person is dead and no longer private.)

It is a good idea to sync your tree with Family Tree Maker (FTM). That way you can keep a copy of your database and all images and documents on your desktop computer. Asked by a class member, Cowan said that you can’t sync between your Tree and FamilySearch Family Tree or any other desktop tree besides FTM.

Shaky Leaves has a feature colloquially called Shaky Leaves. Shaky Leaves are suggestions of records that might match individuals in your tree. Actually called “hints,” the name Shaky Leaves has been so popular that employees call their onsite eatery the “Shaky Leaf Café.” provides hints to the top 10% of their databases as a way to get people started in their discoveries. Hints come with some cautions. They are just hints. Look at records first, skipping Ancestry Family Trees. Use other family trees as clues, not facts. Look to see which have sources. Since 90% of collections are not hinted, don’t stop after reviewing your hints. Search for additional records.

“Want better results?” asked Cowan. “Show the advanced search form.” The home page search box is as simple as possible to not scare away first time visitors. “I hope that you are not using this search form. If you are, don’t.” Click Advanced, or click Search in the menu. Then click Show Advanced. Your choice is sticky and will be remembered the next time you visit.

In advanced mode, under every field there is a search filter. Different kinds of fields have different filters.

Name Filters advanced search form name filterFilters available for names are Default and Exact. The Exact setting has some additional options: phonetic matches, similar meanings, and matching initials. Any or all of these can be specified. If I understand how it works, the Default setting acts as if all of these are set.

Cowan’s grandfather was always called “Junior.” He thought his name was Frederick, but it was actually Fred. As simple as the name Fred if, it was often spelled Fredrick, Frederick, Frederich, Freddie, or Freddy.

The Default setting will match all of these as well as F.

If Exact is set, Fred will match only Fred. (The remaining examples I determined by trial and error. I hope I got them right.)

If Exact is set with Phonetic, Fred will match Fred, Freddy, Freddie, and others, like Freda, but not Fredrick, Frederick, or Frederich.

If Exact is set with Similar, Fred will match Fred, Fredrick, Frederick, Frederich, but not Freddie or Freddy.

If Exact is set with Initials, Fred will match Fred and F.

Wildcards can be used. Using the asterisk wildcard, Fred* will match all of the list, while Frederic? will match only Frederich and Frederick. (Cowan said that to activate wildcards, change the filter to “Restrict to exact.” I don’t think you have to do this. If you specify a wildcard, the search will be exact, even if the default setting is selected.)

To use wildcards, you must have at least three consecutive characters and can’t have wildcards at both beginning and ending of the name.

Year Filter

Cowan wouldn’t set year to exact. It might be wrong on records or transcribed incorrectly. The person might have lied. The recorder might have rounded to nearest multiple of 5. Or it might be necessary for you to estimate birth year from age. And if you mark birth year exact, will not return records without a birth year. advanced search form Location filtersLocation Filters

Cowan warned that you may not want to set birth place exact. Boundaries change, etc. If you specify a city like San Francisco, then you won’t get any census records since they don’t specify city.

You can also set the filter to restrict to county, adjacent county, state, adjacent state, or country. (To use these settings, you must select the place from the dropdown list when you enter it.)

For a first search, Cowan will typically specify “Lived In” and restrict to state. This is for a first search. She doesn’t often use Exact.

To set all the filters to default, click the Match All Exactly checkbox twice.

Other Advanced Controls advanced search form Collection Priority and Restrict To controlsThe advanced search form has a Collection Priority control which can restrict results to collections from a particular country or ethnicity. This setting is “sticky.” That is, it is remembered from one session to another, so be mindful when you use it.

It also has a control which can restrict to results to record types: historical records, family trees, stories and publications, and photos & maps. This setting is also sticky.


You can quickly scan through the top records if you know a lot about the person. “Never go through a page or two,” said Cowan. “If what you want is not coming up in the first couple of pages, redo your search.”

You can also view results by Categories instead of ranked records. Above the first result, on the right, click on Categories or Records.

Cowan likes using browser tabs. When viewing a list of results, you can right click on a result to open it in a new tab. (In Firefox I use ctrl-click to the same effect.) Leave this tab open. Then its easy to compare the record to another record.

Cowan like to transcribe (or extract) records. This forces you to pay attention to the information in the records and the entire record.

As an aside, check out the new image viewer. It makes it easy to extract the information. You can zoom in and it shows row and column headers.

The latest viewer displays row and column headers when zoomed in

Put the extracts in a chronological list. It is not quite a story, but pretty close. Think about additional collections that will add to the story. Some collections are not name indexed. Consider them as well. Maps are an example.

Using these search controls and the records on you can reveal your ancestor’s story.


  1. "Cowan said that you can’t sync between your Tree and FamilySearch Family Tree or any other desktop tree besides FTM."

    Which raises the question: since two unsynched trees would be a mess, which one should I post my tree to?

  2. I use Ancestry primarily for research. I also have parts of my tree in FamilySearch for other reasons. I use Family Tree Maker so that I have everything that I have in Ancestry on my computer and I use RootsMagic because it allows me to input into FamilySearch at my pace, not my whole tree but one person at a time when I know that I have the correct information on that person.

  3. I keep hoping AncestorSync or equivalent will come to fruition and allow sharing between competing programs, but it looks like AS has fallen behind and haven't had a released product out yet. Until FHISO or Better GEDCOM or GEDCOMX get something out that is adopted by the industry, I think I/we are stuck with multiple copies and trying to synchronize between systems. It is frustrating and inefficient, but seems to be the current state of affairs in this competitive, siloed market.


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