How to Select a Person to Begin Your Genealogical Search
Now that you’ve started collecting and organizing family documents that can help you put together your family history, it’s time to focus on one particular person and start digging deeper through the many online resources. Selecting a person sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Just choose your great-great-grandfather’s name, and you’re off to the races. But what if your great-great-grandfather’s name was John Smith? You may encounter millions of sites with information on John Smith — unless you know some facts about the John Smith you’re looking for, you’ll have a frustrating time online.
Try a semi-unique name
The first time you research online, try to start with a person whose name is, for lack of a better term, semi-unique — a person with a name that doesn’t take up ten pages in your local phone book, but is still common enough that you can find some information on it the first time you conduct a search.
If you’re really brave, you can begin with someone with a common surname such as Smith or Jones, but you have to do a lot more groundwork up-front so that you can easily determine whether any of the multiple findings relate to your ancestor.
Also, consider variations in spelling that your ancestor’s name may have. Often, you can find more information on the mainstream spelling of his or her surname than on one of its rarer variants. For example, if you research someone with the surname Helme, you may have better luck finding information under the spellings Helm or Helms.
If your family members immigrated to the United States in the last two centuries, they may have Americanized their surname. Families often Americanized their name so that the name could be easily pronounced in English, or sometimes the surname was simply misspelled and subsequently adopted by the family.
For more information on name variations, check out the Name Variations in the United States Indexes and Records page at FamilySearch.
Choose someone you know about
In addition to choosing a person whom you’re likely to have success researching, you want to use a person you already know something about. The more details that you know about a person, the more successful your initial search is likely to be.
For example, Matthew used his great-grandfather William Abell because he knew more about that side of his family. His grandmother once mentioned that her father was born in LaRue County, Kentucky, in 1876. This gives him a point of reference for judging whether a site has any relevant information on his family.
A site is relevant if it contains any information on Abells who were located in or near LaRue County, Kentucky, before or around the year 1876. Try to use the same technique with your ancestor.
Select a grandparent’s name
Having trouble selecting a name? Why not try one of your grandparent’s names? Using a grandparent’s name can have several benefits. If you find some information on an individual but you aren’t sure whether it’s relevant to your family, you can check with relatives to see whether they know any additional information that can help you.
This may also spur interest in genealogy in other family members who can then assist you with some of your research burden or produce some family documents that you never knew existed.
With a name in hand, you’re ready to see how much information is currently available on the Internet about that individual. Because this is just one step in a long journey to discover your family history, you want to begin slowly.
Don’t try to examine every resource right from the start. You’re more likely to become overloaded with information if you try to find too many resources too quickly. Your best approach is to begin searching a few sites until you get the hang of how to find information about your ancestors online.
And keep in mind that you can always bookmark sites in your web browser, or record the URL in a spreadsheet or your genealogical database, so that you can easily return to them later, when you’re ready for more in-depth researching.