Saturday, July 16, 2016

All About Mary

Every once in a while someone asks me how I found some information. That question came to me again recently and I wrote a rather lengthy reply to a newbie. My methods are not special, but they are deliberate. Today I share my single biggest secret.

A columnist -- online or paper -- once wrote that Ancestry is a scam. I wouldn't go that far, but it is important to know what they want from you: your data first and your money second. If you depend on their online service to store your family tree, they have achieved the first and are also doing well at keeping their hand in your pocket.

Web sites, not just Ancestry, want you to spend long periods of time on their sites. The longer you stay, the more ads you will see and the more money you will spend. So how do you spend less time at Ancestry and find more of what you are looking for? The strategy I'll show you also works for Family Search.

Where's Mary?

Last year I was searching for a woman named Mary Maddox Neff. I had last found her with her husband and children in the 1860 census in Pickaway County, Ohio. What happened to Mary Neff after 1860? Let's search both Ancestry and Family Search for this fairly common name.

Focus on Ancestry Categories

First let's do a wide-open search on Ancestry.

If you have not changed your default results method, this would be the view you get. 986 thousand results to dig through. I'd be on the Ancestry site the rest of my life looking for that 1870 census. Ka-ching!

Narrow the collection to United States only, since that is where Mary should be.

Now it's only 864 thousand results. I could continue to refine the filters, but there is a very fast way to focus. Choose Categories instead of Records at the top right. That's the trick. It's that simple.

Notice that the matching result count went up to over one million. That's strange, but now I don't care because I am not going to look at those matches. Having selected Categories, now my results will always return as Categories and I don't have to switch it unless I'm feeling masochistic.

Next I have to think about what I need to find. In this case I want the 1870 census. So I would click into the line that says "See all 114,048 results" that is under Census & Voter Lists. The 1870 census will be in that list and I will select that census and start working with filters to find what I want.

The downside to this method is that you have to think about the records you need to search. The upside is you will get to know the record types and be able to get to what you want much more quickly. So in the long run there is no real downside. And Ancestry may not keep you spending money quite so long.

Focus on Family Search Collections


Family Search works in a similar way. First the wide-open search returns 61 thousand results. Even on a free site, that's far too many records to look at.

On Family Search, click on the word Collections at the top of the results to break the results down by

Again, looking for the 1870 census, I need to click on "Show All 101" after the heading that says Census & Lists.

I didn't find Mary Neff in the 1870 census by these methods alone, but that's a tale for another day.


  1. I have to say I knew about the Family Search Collections which is what I go to all the time. I did not know about the Ancestry Categories, why I have no clue. Will be changing for that next visit.

    1. Wow, Cheryl. I'm sorry -- I thought you knew this. I should have told you long ago.