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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Know Thy Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

May 09, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Many family historians have been introduced to genealogy through the Internet. Because of this, many of new researchers are not always aware of the different records traditionally used in the searching of a family tree. More importantly they may not be aware of alternatives to the Internet or digitized versions.

To effectively use any source or record it is important to know everything there is to know about that record. Knowing the limitations of a record or why the record was created in the first place can aid you in your research. Knowing that the digitized version allows searching one way and the film version another may save you time and certainly could keep you from going down the wrong road in your research.

Know your records to save time and trouble.

Different Versions?

The problem with online versions of records is that many who are new to the field of genealogy are unaware of where the original records came from or how they came to be available on the Internet.

One example is the Germans to America series that is available online as part of the International and Passenger Records Collection. This set was originally published in book form. Through the years, the individuals included has changed slightly. Early volumes did not include everyone coming from Germany as the compilers did not index any ship that was less than 80 percent German passengers. This is one of a number of known limitations for the years 1850 to 1855.

This does not mean that a resource like Germans to America should not be used. For many researchers it is an index that reveals the arrival of an ancestor during those frustrating, unindexed years of immigrants through New York City. The fifty volumes that make up this resource are available online but few understand where they came from. In fact, a request for a similar compilation of Polish immigrants to America has come in. It is important to understand that many of the online indexes and compiled resources such as this existed long before they came online. In the case of something like Germans to America, the original set took years to compile.

A Different View

Computers and online resources offer many ways to search for information. When using online databases, though, there are sometimes certain required fields before a search can be accomplished. For instance, to search Ellis Island Records online you must include a surname when you run a search. Because computers will search only for the spelling in question, if the entry for an ancestor was spelled differently, your search will not reveal the person in question.

Many believe if they do not find their ancestor in one of these indexes that their ancestor does not exist in that record. Actually it means that the ancestor does not exist in the index under the name as it was entered in the search of that index. More than likely the ancestor is listed under another spelling of the surname. However, many researchers stop after that initial search because they aren't familiar with spelling variations.

If you don't find who you are looking for online, it is important to remember traditional resources. For example, if your ancestor arrived at Ellis Island after 1897, you may be able to find that person in indexes that are available on microfilm. These indexes, arranged under Soundex code (which groups like sounding, but differently spelled, surnames together) would allow the researcher the chance to view individuals with some of these surname variations. Even those of us who are familiar with spelling variations sometimes have trouble when searching online. We may be familiar with three or four spelling variations, but of course, the entry in the index is using spelling variation number five — the one we didn't think of!

Similar research issues are present when searching the census. In the case of the 1900 Census, it is important to know that the searchable index does not include everyone found on the census page. In most cases the index includes the head of the household and any people in the household who had a different surname than that person. Knowing this ahead of time saves time, and allows you to make the most of a search of the census.

In Conclusion

Knowing why a record exists in the first place, and then understanding how its digitized version differs from the original is important to effective searching. Only when you have all the information about your ancestors and about the records being used can you enhance your family tree and trace back to additional generations.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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