About Searching for Ancestors

My mother’s family at St. Paul, Arkansas, early 1920s. Mom is third from left.

Without question, discovering the people from whom you descend is an exhilarating and fascinating endeavor. Idiosyncrasies of your known kinsmen—and yourself—suddenly make a lot of sense, not to mention that red hair or tall stature. It’s remarkably emotional to learn of an ancestor who fought to the death in a war or whose wife–your 3x great grandmother–died in house fire.

Several internet sources for genealogical information are free—simply search “Name” “date of birth” and if you know it, “location” and you’ll discover a group of results with respectable information. Sadly, you’ll also discover a trove of spammers and click bait.

But a word to the wise. The most extensive and useful source, Ancestry.com, also can be less than forthcoming. Here are a few helpful hints.

Using the “Search” “All Collections” option yields the best results especially for a beginner. Once you’ve entered the name and whatever other information you may have on hand, you’ll find results that don’t exactly match up with what you’re looking for.

Refinements could include selecting the gender for your subject, isolating the location to “exact” as shown by the arrow, and narrowing the birth year to within a year or two of the assumed date of birth. Yet in the case of Albert Taylor as shown in the image, the search yields nothing more than the 1860 census where, at age 17, he and his 19-year-old sister Jane reside in the household of Alcie Haton [Heaton] to whom his relationship is not known.

My interest in Albert Taylor is his military record with the 1st Arkansas Cavalry, U.S., where he served in Company L as a private. His death in the regiment records occurred February 22, 1863, as shown on one of the most extensive records of Civil War military personnel, the Edward G. Gerdes Civil War homepage. He is also listed in this regiment at the National Park Service website. But in Ancestry.com, his name does not appear in military records.

One of the most frustrating of Ancestry.com problems is the tendency of many family historians to simply duplicate what someone else has posted to that lineage history without confirming any of the information. In an ideal situation, a search of Family Trees produces a lot of histories. For example, my search for information about Van Buren Covington, who lost his life in 1864 while serving in Co. A, 1st AR Cavalry, led to an Ancestry.com Family Tree record showing only one result, as seen below. The only option from here is to click on the name of his fourteen-year-old bride, which yields her family background, locations of family members, and other possibly useful leads.

But in many cases, Family Tree results show one or two trees with two or three ‘records’ or ‘sources’ and then the rest of the trees, of which there may be dozens, have no records and only one source, if any. Inevitably, these trees perpetuate inaccurate information and are simply not to be trusted. This problem grows exponentially as you track family trees back through generations because researching materials established before modern record keeping involves tedious attention to details often preserved in an arcane manner. So don’t just take the first couple of family trees as gospel; make a thorough investigation of those with the most sources and records, and compare the information before accepting it.

One option with a search result like this one with 0 records and 0 sources is to do another search on the father’s name. Or continue with this search until you find some with multiple records and sources.

Note: If your ancestry leads you to records in another country, you’ll have to pay Ancestry.com an additional subscription fee in order to access those records.

Ancestry.com is very much a user-created database assisted by an extensive organizational effort on the part of the company to provide as many institutional records as possible. But nothing is perfect. Subscribe if you want to search your genealogy, enjoy the nuggets of pure gold that you find, but always remain aware that in order to glean the greatest accuracy, you must not only limit your family tree searches to those with multiple records and sources, but also compare them to information found on other internet sites.

For Van Buren Covington, an internet search beyond Ancestry.com resulted in several discoveries. Geni.com shows his full name was Martin Van Buren Covington, born in 1839, not 1837. It also shows family members. But beware—Geni.com is one of those sites that requires membership before giving out any further info. You may find useful free resources at genealogy.com and many more. Bottom line? HAVE FUN!

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