It’s a wild, wild, wild(card) world of genealogy records out there! Are your ancestors hiding in them?
As a researcher you perform genealogy searches daily to find your ancestors. But you wonder….
Are you maximizing your search results? Getting the best results for finding your ancestors? Are your search results limited because of misspellings and/or transcription errors? Or are you searching for ancestors but unsure of what spelling they used in the records?
It’s time for a wildcard search!
What is a Genealogy Wildcard Search?
One of the best kept search secrets is the wildcard search that allows you to substitute the wildcard characters “*” or a “?” in place of letters you do not know or are unsure of. These wildcard characters tell Google or Ancestry or whichever search engine you use, to count all letters in that position as a match.
The results you get will be more encompassing and diverse.
Here are a couple of things you need to know before you start that genealogy wildcard search for your ancestors:
- The “*” is used to replace zero to multiple characters.
- The “?” is used to replace just 1 character or letter.
Predominantly, I use the “*” , but if I know only 1 letter is in question for my search I use the “?”. That helps keep the results from being too broad and the list too long.
The Genealogy Wildcard Search In Action
Before you get started on a wildcard search, read the search tips section for the database you are using. Find search tips for the major databases here:
- Ancestry.com’s Search Tips
- FindMyPast Wildcard Search Tips
- FamilySearch Search Tip
- Google Search Tips
Genealogy Tip: Taking a few minutes to learn how to search on a specific site will help you be an efficient and save time. That means more time for researching!
In the following example, I’ll show you a wildcard search I used on Jesse Haley (b. 1803). **
The various spellings and transcription errors for Jesse Haley (b. 1803) of Halifax County, VA presented a challenge. Haley seemed like a straight forward “easy” name to search, but even simple names can be troublesome.
A first search for “Jesse Haley” using Ancestry.com returned the following results:
Only one Jesse Haley appeared in the results for all census years. Odd, since he lived his entire life in same county. [Upon closer inspection, that Jesse Harley was my guy, too!] Still, I was not finding him in early and later census years.
I decided to try a wildcard search to see if I could find Jesse hiding in the records under a spelling variation I had not imagined yet.
A search for “Jesse H*ley” should provide more record options to consider.
Below we see the “*” returned results with “en”, “an”, “ud”, “ar”….
I had my work cut out for me sorting through the results.
Once you have your own wildcard search results, read through the list and determine which results could possibly be your ancestor. This can be a time consuming process, but you do not want to miss your ancestor simply because of a transcription error or he/she was listed under a spelling variation you had not previously considered.
Let’s take a look at another example: Mike Halcsisak…. or at least, I think that’s what his name was.
A search on Mike Halcsisak resulted in no results.
The transcription and spelling possibilities for Halcsisak could be endless. Searching on all of the possible variations would be impossible. Time for a wildcard search!
I struggled so much with this surname search, I opted to use 2 “*” in the search. Based on other records I had, I decided to search on Mike Halz*i*k.
You can see the name variations returned. Interestingly, the search results also included one variation with the “*” in place of letters. That indicates the transcribers were unable to confidently transcribe those missing letters for the 1910 census. Everything else looked similar to the Mike H. I was searching for, so I clicked through. Yes, that was the Mike I was searching for!
Experiment searching for you ancestors using a wildcard search. Try using more than one “*” or “?” if you have a longer name. Just a word of caution, your search results will be broad and your results list long.
Reading through a long list of search results can be time consuming, but that’s okay.
Remember, a genealogy wildcard search is not the first type of search you will do. The wildcard search is for when you’ve exhausted the more traditional search or you simply do not have enough information on your ancestor’s name for that regular search. The alternative could be you miss finding your ancestor’s record.
Check Out These Other Posts of Interest:
- Tutorial: How to Research Your Ancestor With a No-Surname Search
- How To Perform Your Genealogy Searches More Successfully
- How to Create Your Genealogy Research Plan (& Why You Should!)
**I am actively researching the Haley family of south-central Virginia. If you are too, contact me.