It couldn't be easier, right? The first time you visit an online genealogy site, they ask you to enter just the first and last name of the person in whom you are interested. Then they suggest you add as many other details as you happen to know. When I was starting the research for Beyond All Price, I entered a name (Nellie Chase), her birth state (Maine), and a year range for her birth (1835-1845). And I got results. 147 of them, in fact! Who would have guessed that there would be that many Nellie Chases in the world, let alone in a single state. The site suggested I could narrow my results by entering more information, but more information was what I was looking for. I didn't know her parentage, her city, her death date, her husband's name, or any of the other things they suggested.
Did I eventually find the Nellie I was looking for? Yes, I think so. But it took years, and that will have to be a separate story.. Now if you are hunting for a family member, you may have more facts than I did to start out with, but you are likely to run into many of the same problems. Here are some of the pitfalls that you need to be aware of.
1. Census records look valuable, and they can be, but their worth depends entirely upon the competence of the person doing the recording. I just examined a record for my mother's family from the 1900 Pennsylvania Census. It listed the birth dates of two of her sisters as November 1877 and February 1878. Three months apart? Probably not!
2. For any kind of record before the days of typewriters and computers, handwriting causes major problems. Some examples are marvelously clear; others are scrawls or overwritten with corrections, so that it is impossible to decipher them. Then there are problems caused by mispronunciations or bad hearing or faulty transcriptions. The online version of the 1910 Census shows my mother (Margaret McCaskey) as Marguett Mccacbey.
3. Nicknames cause their own set of difficulties. Nellie Chase always used the name Nellie, but her given name could have been Nell, Helen, Eleanor, or Ellen. My own brother had problems all his life explaining his name. My mother named him Jack. Just Jack. It was not a nickname, but people naturally assumed that his real name must have been John or Jacques or even James.
4. Family names change over time. A major culprit may be an immigration record, on which an ethnic name was written down as the closest English approximation. One branch of my father's family bore the surname of Arendt in Germany. They arrived in America as Aurand. Their friends the Muellers became the Millers.
5. Sometimes name differences are the result of a deliberate choice. I grew up knowing two cousins who sported the same name but different pronunciations. Their fathers had a falling out and did not speak to each other, so one pronounced the last syllable of the family name as "KO" while the other used "KAWK." Both, however, spelled it as "-cock."
6. And then there's my husband's family. We are frequently told that our last name should be spelled "Schreiber." Well, it originally was. The family story says that John Schreiber, who fought in the Civil War, found that his discharge papers had his name spelled wrong. He was given two choices. He could refuse the discharge and stay in the army. Or he could change his name to Schriber, take the discharge as written, and go home that very day. He went home! And we've been Schribers ever since.
Don't misunderstand me. Genealogical research is great fun, and you can learn amazing things about your own family, including where all the skeletons are buried. But you do have to enter the search with a healthy dose of skepticism. The best family record sites offer you an option to search for an exact spelling or an approximate one. I usually start with the exact search, but when that fails, a "sounds like" option is frequently the answer. After all, Nellie might have been Nelie, or Nelly, or Ellie, or even Ellen, as she turned out to be.
Here are some online databases that may help your search. Remember, however, that they don't come with guarantees that they are complete or that their information is accurate. I also recommend that you take full advantage of offers to use the sites without charge for a short period of time before committing yourself to paying for a membership. You may find the site useful, of course, but it may contain nothing at all to help you.
1. The Social Security Death Index contains birth and death dates for deceased individuals with Social Security numbers who died after 1962 (when the records were computerized) through the current year.
2. RootsWeb's WorldConnect Project is a database containing family files submitted by both amateur and professional researchers. For that reason you can expect to find a large number of errors.
3. FamilySearch. The Ancestral File and International Genealogical Index (IGI), a service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, contain information on millions of people worldwide, but these records too can be in error because many contributors are amateurs.
4. The Ellis Island Database contains images of ship manifests documenting over 22 million people who entered the United States between 1892 and 1924 through Ellis Island and the Port of New York.
5. The USGenWeb Project directory provides links to state and county genealogical resources.
6. Perhaps the most useful for the beginning researcher is Ancestry.com. It offers ongoing help, access to millions of handwritten records, and the chance to connect with others who may be researching the same people.
Do any of you have other suggestions to add to this list?