Friday, July 1, 2016

Darned Records: Miscreant Search

We depend upon records to reveal the “truth” about the past. Yet sometimes records have anomalies. Some are amusing or humorous. Some are interesting or weird. Some are peculiar or suspicious. Some are infuriating, or downright laughable.

Records say the darnedest things!

Rather than a record, per se, today I consider darned search results from A reader, Jim Castellan, shared a search result from that he saw a couple of years ago. The search results have seemingly zero to do with his query.

Weird search results on from 2014

This behavior has not changed. If you perform the same search today, you get the same result (with the exception that Mary Brown has moved out of New York City?).

Weird search results on from today

Here’s a partial explanation. Look at the search sliders on the left side. The “Lived in” New York City slider has been pushed all the way to the right. This requires that all results be located in the specified place. All the rest of the sliders (except last name) have been pushed all the way to the left. That means the search results don’t necessarily need to match all of those criteria. If you examine the results, all meet a couple of them:

  • name is a nickname of William
  • born within several years of 1871
  • born within one state of Connecticut
  • married within several years of 1895

To receive more reasonable results, fiddle with the sliders. If you move the name sliders to the “Exact and similar” position, you get zero results, which might be what you expect if William Pinkerman died or moved out of New York City. If you then move the Lived In slider to the left to “Country,” there is the possibility that you will find where your William Pinkerman moved to.

The search sliders are one of the most powerful aspects of the Ancestry search system. They provide a degree of control lacking on other websites, which pick these settings for you and then don’t tell you what they chose.

Yes, search results sometimes say the darnedest things!


  1. I've "fiddled" with the sliders. If I use "exact" or close to exact, it gives no hints. I have complained to since they first implemented this search. But, like any other Corporation, they do not admit to mistakes, errors, or useless search programs.

  2. The slides can be useful, but I wish there were more gradients in some of them. Exact is powerful, but exact or not exact isn't as helpful a range of choices as could be provided.

    I can offer these tips. Hopefully they haven't already been covered.

    You can always run a narrow search and hope for the best. But be prepared to do multiple searches with increasingly broader criteria. You have to coax the results out of the index. And if you get a lot of hits, don't be satisfied that you've found them all. Keep going back and trying additional variations of your search.

    If you have a strong and unique "lived in" and are not finding your subject amid lots of hits, it can be helpful to search in that region by first name only, with the "sounds like" and "similar" options selected. A name like William typically won't vary much in official records, but a handwritten Pinkerman can easily turn into Dickerson or whatever. So you might find Ancestry has indexed William Pinkerson as Will Dickerson.

    The main Search engine offers "Place your ancestor might have lived". That is the field elsewhere referred to as "Lived in". Keep in mind that that is not the same thing as "place of birth". Be sure to use the full features of the search engine. One of your searches for a US resident should be an exact place of birth at the US State or foreign country level, and a regional "lived in".

    Don't forget that the 1850, 1860 and 1870 US censuses don't automatically bring in family members from the same household. And depending on how you approach official records, some relatives living together in a particular census household or associated in a marriage or birth record can be left out of your tree unless you manually enter them or approach the record from a different perspective.


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