Since Ancestry remains the primary website for genealogy research, I’d like to share a few tips for researching its databases.
For the first example, I’ll use the marriage database below called Maryland Compiled Marriages, 1667-1899:
We Must Know the Source
Typically, we put the names of our ancestors in the search box. If the search came up empty, we might conclude the marriage record wasn’t there.
That’s a big mistake. In every database we search, we need to know the source of the information in the database.
That is usually found beneath each database (see it in the image above). In this case, it is detailed by county, since the compiler, Jordan Dodd, utilized original records.
Sometimes the source of a database is a published book. Other times its from Family History Center microfilm reels. It may also be from county courthouse or state archives.
A Maryland Example
Let’s say I was searching for the marriage of a couple that occurred around 1885, in Somerset and Montgomery Counties, Maryland.
If that search returns with no results, what does that mean? Well, if I read the detailed source information, I would learn that for Somerset County records, this database only covers marriages through 1871:
Likewise, for Montgomery County, the database only covers marriages through 1875:
Although the title of the database states that the records are through 1899, that range does not mean that every county is covered for those years. Obviously, that is important to know.
A Tennessee Example
Another similar example is shown below in the database for Tennessee Marriages. My primary research county is Hardin County:
The source information informs me that Hardin County is not included in this collection:
Draft Registration Databases
The World War I and World War II draft registrations are popular databases on Ancestry. The World War II draft cards capture many African-Americans who moved from the South during the Great Migration.
My southern states of research include Tennessee and Florida. Again, reading the source detail for this database reveals important information:
The cards for the states listed above were destroyed.
Thus, the only information for my Tennessee and Florida ancestors will be on those who moved North to one of the states covered in the collection.
Index or Images?
When researching, we need to know whether a particular database is an index only or whether it is an index with images. Images are always superior, since any transcription introduces the possibility for error.
Though an indexed-entry is helpful, genealogists should always consult original records. So instead of being satisfied with this indexed death in the Tennessee, Deaths and Burials Index:
We should go to the Tennessee, Death Records database, that will allow us to see the image for ourselves:
If all you have is the index of a record, be sure to obtain the original record by writing to the appropriate archives or agency.
I’m still surprised at how many people don’t utilize the free Familysearch genealogy databases. They have more county level records which is what we need.
Use Familysearch databases in conjunction with Ancestry. For example, Ancestry has a Delaware Death Records database that includes an index and images, through 1933:
But if you also searched on Familysearch, they have death records through 1961 for the state:
Again, for both of these, you’d want to look and see what counties are covered and for what years.
One Last Tip
The indexed marriage database below included parent’s names:
At the bottom of the image, we find that the source is a Family History Library (FHL) microfilm, reel number 30135.
So I logged in to Familysearch.org, and I searched their catalog using that film number. The film contains two items:
Somerset County, Maryland is adjacent to the county of Accomack in Virginia. It makes sense that some couples would have married there even though they were from Somerset. I’ll make sure to examine these original records myself.
I hope these few tips will strengthen the research that you do online by helping you to focus on the source of the information.
And remember that while the Internet is a valuable tool, most of our research still happens offline and in person at various repositories.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Great information. I wish I lived near a Family History Center.
Your tips are very informative. Thank you.