In-Depth Guide – Part 7 – Ancestry Category Search

“Ancestry Category Search” is chapter seven in this in-depth series on using the Ancestry website to further your family research. This chapter dives into a a type of Ancestry Search also known as Filter by Category.

Ever feel overwhelmed by thousands of results coming back from your Search? And decide that you’d be better off researching a different person? This chapter guides you through a strategy to mine those massive record lists.

The series chapters to date are:

Ancestry Category Search

The previous chapter went through Global Search in detail. Combining a Global Search with a further Filter by Category allows you to take a strategic step-by-step approach to your research. This avoids going scatter-gun and missing all kinds of good stuff.

This chapter describes a strategy that uses Category Search to manage larger search results more efficiently. We’ll walk through some cases studies to show how it’s done.

In a nutshell, the strategy is designed to eliminate the noise of irrelevant records, and shuffle good records to the top of the page.

Our two cases involve searching for a “lost” sibling of an ancestor. It’s a common scenario: you’ve located a census record where your ancestor is recorded as a child. Several other children of the household are present, and you’ve built new branches for most of them – marriages, births of children, and death records.

But there is one sibling who seems to have vanished from the local records. You suspect that he left home at working age and moved to some far-flung state or place. But you have little else to go on except name, birth year and birth place.

Case Study: Patrick Smith – 4 thousand records

Our first case study is Patrick Smith. A baptism and childhood census record has him born in Ireland in 1877. All his many siblings pop up in later Irish records, but Patrick seems to “fall off the map”, so to speak. We suspect he emigrated from his native country, but we’re not sure to where. And with this most common of last names, are we searching for a needle in a haystack?

Start with a Global Search

A global search produces over four thousand records. The first page has a sprinkle of interesting U.S. immigration records, but most results on the top page are birth and census records from Ireland. If our guy spent his adult life elsewhere, then all those high matching results are simply getting in our way.

We figure that marriage, military records and obituaries are our best chance of identifying as correct sources, because they’ll likely have his parents names.

So, we want to get rid of the birth results, and shuffle other types of records up to the top pages. Enter “Filter by Category”, which we now put to strategic use.

Then Filter by Category

When you run a Global Search, the “Filter by Category” options become available on the left side of the results. Here they are in the red box for our wandere.

We’ll start with targetting marriage and death events. Click on the “Birth, Marriage & Death” category to drill down into it.

The entire category has a dispiriting count of near three thousand records. But see how the birth-related records account for most of the daunting volume? When we choose the sub-category of “”Marriage & Divorce”, the results fit on a single page! These can be tackled in one research session.

The Death sub-category is trickier, with nearly a thousand records. But “Filter by Category” has multiple tools in the box. We’ll now use the Categories View to manage these larger results.

Categories View

The default view of results is a list of records. But you can easily switch to the Categories View with a toggle at the top right of the page. For this particular case, we’ll then sort by name, as we want to get a feel for the locations for which these records pertain.

The Newspapers and Find-A-Grave collections are country-wide, but most of these record collections are specific to a state.

At this point, we’ve got to choose which record collections to start with. That might be the collections with the lowest number of results.

Or we may use some guess-work and start with the locations in which an immigrant from a particular country is more likely to settle. For Patrick, maybe New York before Tennessee.

The point is to break up this mammoth problem of too many results into more manageable chunks. You’re likely to turn away from your research when faced with a thousand images to review. Instead, hit twenty in one targeted session and tick those off your research list.

How about something a little tougher?

I used the most common surname of Smith to make this case a challenge. But because Patrick was born in Ireland in the 19th centurey, the available record collection is somewhat reduced. So let’s try a challenge of someone born in the United States.

Case Study: William Willoughby – 13 thousand records

We’ll try William Willoughby, born in 1877 in Union, New Jersey. Once again, we can’t source any adult records for William in New Jersey, and suspect his life was spent in a different state.

But this time we have one extra morsel of information: you’ve spotted a mention of William & Ann Willoughby in a contemporary letter. Is this William’s wife? You don’t even know her maiden name or where she’s from. So add “Ann” as spouse in the Advanced Global Search mix, and do not hit the “exact” filter:

This search returns over 13 thousand records. As we’ve entered a birth location, most records in the top pages are census, birth, and death records within New Jersey.  

This time when we drill into Birth, Marriage & Death, it’s a different pattern to our first case study. The birth records are low, but the marriage and death records are high.

So the prospect of combing through potential marriage records is very daunting.

But remember we added Ann as a spouse? Let’s drill down into “Marriage & Divorce” records and look at the results. The top eight marriage records pertain to New Jersey. There’s not a single Ann, Anne or Anna amongst them.

Next come records from Virginia, New York, Nevada, California, Montana, Alabama. The spouses? Now, we’re golden. They are mostly “Anna“, with some Annies, Jennies, and Joans for good measure. Towards the end of the first page, the spousal names start straying further and can be discounted: Alice, Irene. And of course there’s a mix on this first page of no spouse name at all on the source record, so we’ll kick those to the kerb.

But the important point is that record #9 on the first results page has a marriage to Anna in Tennessee.

Suppose we hadn’t used the power of Filter by Category? That same marriage record is record #64 as a result of Global Search alone, which is well down the 2nd page with my pagination. The other good filtered prospects appear well down the following pages in the non-filtered results.

So that’s the special power of Filter by Category: use it to eliminate the noise, and shuffle the more useful candidate records up towards the top of the results list.

What’s Next?

In the next chapter, we’ll continue with an in-depth look at Searching on Ancestry. Specifically, we’ll be looking at Ancestry Catalog Search.

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