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5 Ways to Win the Name Game

By Juliana Smith

Whether the family name is Smith or Jones or something a little trickier like Szucs or Szkokan, our ancestors’ surnames can become stumbling blocks. Here are some tips, tricks, and tools that can help you win the “name game.”

1. Search Directly
When you’re having a hard time locating your ancestor in a particular census or some other collection, search for them directly in that collection, rather than through the global search on the home page or on the Search tab. Those search boxes are searching through 7 billion records in more than 30,000 collections. They’re great for picking off low-hanging fruit, but when you want to zero in, go right to the source. You can navigate down to a particular record category through the options on the Search landing page (e.g., Immigration & Travel, Census & Voter Lists, etc.), or whittle it down to a particular record type like passenger lists or birth records from that same page.

To get even closer to the data, use the Card Catalog to find a particular collection. Using the filters on the left, you can zero in on your ancestor’s place of residence, the type of record you’re interested in, and even the time frame.

2. Search without a Surname
Sometimes we get hung up on trying to find that corrupted spelling of a surname, when in reality we don’t need it. If you have enough details, it’s often possible to locate your ancestor without a surname, particularly in 1880 and later census records where we can use family structure in our search.

For this trick you’re probably going to want to search the collection of interest directly. Let’s use the 1930 census  as an example. I’m going to do a search for my great-grandfather John Szucs. Although his name wasn’t misspelled in this census, we’re going to leave the last name out. You’d think with this being such a large census and a first name like John, this would be a tough search, but it’s not.

I include his first name, year of birth, state of residence in 1930, and I added his wife’s name (with wild cards, since I’ve seen her name spelled Theresa, Teresa, and Teresia), and his son’s name, Stephen.

I could have added his daughter, Irene, but I didn’t need it. Just those few extra elements pushed his entry up to the #1 spot.

I can do the same thing with my grandfather on my mom’s side. Just using his first name, an “estimated” date of birth (I made it off by two years as an experiment), place of residence of Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, and his wife’s first name, brought his census entry to within the top three.

Try it with your family and you’ll see how powerful searching with family structure can be. And don’t overlook other search options like specifying the relationship to the head of household as well. Every piece you can match can nudge your ancestor toward the top.

3. Investigate Ethnic Variants
If your ancestor came from a non-English speaking country, don’t overlook the possibility that he may have used an ethnic variation of his first name, last name, or both, particularly when he was traveling to, or had recently arrived in the United States.

Ethnic first names are pretty easy to research online (e.g., “Polish given names,” or “German first names”) and there are also many publications that can help as well.

For surnames, investigate pronunciation as well. Your ancestor’s name may have been recorded as the record keeper heard it, which may not necessarily correspond to the spelling.

4. Get Wild with Wildcards
The great thing about searching is you can get wild and crazy, and wildcards are a great way to experiment. On Ancestry.com:

• An asterisk * matches zero or more characters—so Ann* matches Ann, Anne, Anna, Annabelle, etc.
• A question mark ? matches one character—so Ann? matches Anne or Anna.
• The first letter can now be a wildcard, although either the first or last character must be a non-wildcard character.
• Names must contain at least three non-wildcard characters.
• Try the wildcard as a first letter to capture cases where a flourish on the first letter may cause it to be mis-transcribed.

5. Play with “Default Settings”
Just below the names in Ancestry.com search forms, you’ll see a little link that says “Use Default Settings.” (If you’re not seeing it, you are using the basic search and will need to click “Show Advanced” to take advantage of these options.)

There are several options for both first names and last names. Play around with these and see if you can’t shake up the results you’re getting.

For first names, when I’m not using the default settings, I like to choose to search “Exact and Records where only initials are recorded.” Although Ancestry.com factors these records into search results, often (especially when you’re working with common names) those results are pushed down below other variations and can be missed. You’d be surprised how many times your ancestor’s first name was only recorded with an initial.

For last names, I like to uncheck Soundex, especially for my non-English speaking ancestors. Soundex doesn't always work well on our Eastern European ancestor’s names.

Experiment with the many options in the advanced search form. You can’t break it. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll need to try another search. And the best case scenario? You find the record. And that makes it all worthwhile.

Happy searching!


Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 15 years. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

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