Genealogy Tutorial: Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.
Genealogy Research,  How To

Tutorial: How to Research Your Ancestor With a No-Surname Search

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Jesse Haley of Halifax County, VA seemed to disappear from the records for a while in the mid-1800’s.

Hmm….did he leave the area? Or was he just hidden in the records?

Haley seems like a straight forward name to research with it most common misspelling being “Hailey”. Still, I struggled to find Jesse in the records.

Has this happened to you?

You might be not be finding your ancestor in search results for a variety of reasons.

Why You Might Be Missing Your Ancestors in  Your Searches

  • A surname may be “misspelled”.
  • The surname was fluid. Take my Howard ancestors for example.  At any time in the early records, they might be found using the name Harward, Harwood or Howard. Variations even occurred within the same document!
  • The clerk or the person recording the record made a mistake.  Jesse Haley was found as Jesse Hartig in one estate record. Placed alongside the other records for Jesse Haley and the rest of the estate record,  the mistake was obvious. The record on its own threw me for a loop!
  • Transcribers made an error. Have you volunteered to transcribe records? (If so, thank you!) You know that handwriting can be tough to read, so mistakes can and did happen. We are human, after all!
  • Sometimes we  do not know the right surname. This happens more often with our female ancestors, but certainly can happen for other reasons.

Let’s take a closer look at how to perform an ancestor search without using a surname.

I’ll be showing examples in Ancestry.com, because that’s where I spend a lot of my research time. 🙂 The principles apply to any database you are researching. The search fields might vary, but no worries. You can still use these ideas.

Start by choosing which record collection or category you wish to search. In this example, I chose to search for Jesse Haley in the  “Census & Voter Lists”.  Jesse proved to be elusive in the census records, but was not a man who appeared to move around much. I suspected I was missing him due in part to “mis-spellings” of his name.

Genealogy Tutorial: Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.

 

Next, fill in pertinent information minus the surname. My ancestor of interest is Jesse Haley of Halifax County, VA. For this search, I included his first name, a location where Jesse lived, the approximate birth year and the county I expected he lived in.  I intentionally kept my search broad to start with.

Genealogy Tutorial: Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.

 

Here are the results:

Genealogy Tutorial: Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.

Only one result – Jesse Herbert – showed any potential to be “my Jesse”. Unfortunately, Jesse Herbert was not the one.

Go back to the drawing board and adjusted search parameters.  In other records, I had seen Jesse spelled as “Jessie”. I adjusted my search parameters and still left the surname blank.


Genealogy Tutorial: Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.

This time…..Success! About a third of the way down on the first page of results, “Jessie Harley” appears in Halifax County.

Genealogy Tutorial: Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.

Clicking through to the record……

Genealogy Tutorial: Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.

 

Jesse R Haley [Hailey] is just where he should be in Halifax County and living with his known wife Temperance. Haley frequently appears as Hailey in the records. Unfortunately, the census taker did not dot his “i” leading the transcriber to list Jesse Haley/Hailey and Jesse Harley.  One missing dot and Jesse was “lost” in the records!

Your Take Away

Do not assume a record does not exist for your ancestor just because he/she does not appear in the expected records.  Widen your search. Perform a search without a surname to capture possible misspellings or transcription errors. You can do similar searches using a surname and leaving a first name blank.

Keep a list of any search parameter variations you perform for an ancestor. You will save yourself time by not repeating your searches. (Yes, I did learn this the hard way!)

Other posts of interest:

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Genealogy Tutorial: Learn how to find your ancestor by performing a no surname search.

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