December 7, 2012

Five Tips for Searching FamilySearch Databases

Do you have any ancestors who seem like they just don’t want to be found? Thought so. Even when you know they were in a certain place at a certain time, the records just won’t cooperate. Sometimes this is because the record in question simply wasn’t created. Other times, your ancestors may have switched venues on you without warning—say, run off to get married across county or state lines. But when dealing with online databases, much of the time the problem lies not with the record itself, but with the indexing we’ve come to rely on to find it.

I recently encountered this when searching for the death record of my husband’s great-great-grandfather, John Franklin Beum. From John's obituary, I knew the exact date of his death: December 17, 1909. I knew he died in one of two counties: either Franklin County or Delaware County, Ohio. But for the life of me, I couldn’t seem to coax his death record from, even though Ohio began keeping state-mandated death records a year earlier, in December 1908. I last looked for it about 18 months ago, when I set my work on that branch of the family aside. I picked it up again last month, while preparing an application to Century Families of Ohio. I’m happy to report success this time around, and although I don’t profess to have all the answers, I thought I’d share the five techniques I used to get there.

1. Pick the specific database(s) you think should hold the record.
In this case, John should have been in the “Ohio, Deaths, 1908-1953” database, which offers digital images of the records. To get to it, I went to the FamilySearch home page and bypassed the main search box. Scrolling down to “Browse By Location,” I chose “United States.” On the next page, I scrolled down to select “Ohio” in the left-hand sidebar. A list of 19 databases for Ohio records came up. I then selected the database mentioned above. The advantage of doing this is that it provides a more focused search and weeds out the records of, say, a John Beum who lived in Wyoming. It also allows you to try some of the more advanced search techniques listed below.

2. Use the asterisk (*) wildcard.
On, as with many online search engines, the asterisk symbol can be used to stand in for any number of unspecified letters. It’s a useful technique for overcoming variations in spelling, and has often helped me find a miswritten or misindexed record. In the past, I’ve seen this short but tricky surname spelled Beum (correctly), Beam, Bearn, Berne, Beaum, Benns, etc. So knowing my previous difficulty, when I went looking for John this time, I tried entering his first name with the last name Be* (the only consistently correct letters). FamilySearch, however, requires at least three letters in a wildcard search. For a surname with only four letters, this presents a bit of a problem. I tried Be*m, Be*n, and others, but none of these returned the result I was looking for.

3. If a surname search doesn’t work, try alternative search terms.
Fortunately, FamilySearch offers a number of search fields that may help in difficult cases. You can search by location, by the year of a specific event (birth, marriage, or death), or by the name of a spouse or parent. I decided to ditch the troublesome surname altogether. Even though John is a common name, I had a middle initial, an exact year, and a probable county name to help me. I entered the following terms:

  • First name: John F.
  • Last name: (blank)
  • Life event: death; death place: Delaware County; year: 1909

4. Read through the results carefully, and consider partial matches.
Even though I had a lot of results to go through, I took my time with them, looking at the dates, places, and parents’ names on each one. If you get a bingo! moment on the first page, consider it a bonus. I didn’t. But on the third page of results I found the one I was looking for:

So what happened? From what I can figure, John’s death record was not completely indexed. Whoever indexed it apparently couldn’t make out the surname beyond the first two letters, and it entered the database as “Be…” No wonder the three-letter wildcard search didn’t work! What I didn’t expect to find was his entire middle name. I could have included that in the first name search field, if I had known. Oh well. I had my prize: an image of John Franklin Beum's death certificate.

So what’s my last tip?

5. If you still don’t find what you’re looking for, try a different database, or make a note to search again on a future date.
The good news is that FamilySearch is continually adding to its databases and bringing more and more searchable records online. When I have to suspend a search for awhile, I make a note of the date of my last search, the database(s) I tried, and the search terms I used. I put this information in the person’s “notes” section in my genealogy software program, and also jot a quick handwritten reminder to myself and stick it in the front of my surname binder. That way I can pick up the search again another day.

So if your ancestor is playing hard to get, even when you think he or she should have left a record in a particular database, try these tips and see if they help. Sometimes coaxing an ancestor out of hiding takes a combination of trial-and-error, perseverance, and—let’s face it—just plain luck. Here’s wishing you success with your hunt!


Related Posts:
John F. Beum - Sunday's Obituary


  1. Great post on reminding people to try and search again , especially because of the updates !

  2. Glad you found it helpful. Thanks for reading!

  3. Great post Shelley,

    Wildcard has been especially helpful to me in the past. As with try again another day. We all develop defaults and habits in our search techniques. Sometimes trying again later helps us remember to search creatively.

    1. Good point, Rorey. I agree that sometimes approaching a search with fresh eyes is the ticket to success--it certainly helped me in this case. Thanks for taking the time to share your comment.

  4. Good post Shelley. I like the way you laid it all out so plain and clear

  5. Thank you! This is so clearly written and easy to take advice from. We also have a surname that could not provide a three-letter clue for an wildcard asterisk search: Kirven, Kervin, Kirvin, Kerven. That would be OK for two wildcard searches, BUT the actual name is found in some census by the designation of Kiw*** -- because of the census-taker's cursive writing -- go figure.

    I actually like doing first-name searches, especially if you can add something definite like a BD date, and a sure place. Found my uncle's wife "Annette" that way.

    How encouraging that databases are constantly expanding. So hopeful. And thanks for this post!

    1. It's funny how surnames can trip you up, isn't it? First name searches aren't always the quickest thing to try (especially with a common name), but like you, I've found they can be surprisingly successful. Thanks for reading, Mariann!

  6. Great advice!
    Another tip: When I suspect that I can't find someone because the database is incomplete - either date gaps or missing counties, I will enter date range and location, but leave the name fields blank (or use Smith). This shows whether there are any records to be found yet.

    1. That's a great tip, too! I often wonder if a particular county's records have been indexed yet in various databases, and hadn't thought about using that technique to test the waters. But it makes perfect sense and only takes a minute. Appreciate the comment!

  7. I did a similar search for a birth record. I know the name, Edward Holiday and birth date, but couldn't find him. So I looked at every Edward born in 1909, his birth year. At the very end, on the 12th page, I found Eddie Holidi, listed with the correct parents, and HE was listed as a female! Interestingly, he married, had 3 children and I hope he didn't get laughed at when he joined the military. BUt another search techinic is just the first name.

    1. That's a wonderful example of how perseverance can eventually win the day. It's certainly not easy when even the sex of the person is incorrect! Congrats on finding your Edward. And thanks for reading and taking the time to share your story.


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