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

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, 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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  • Janice Wilson is not free. Please do not get people to sign up for a free period of time and then have problems getting it cancelled.

    I can not pay for information. I wish I could.

    • LisaL

      Janice, The principles for the searching without using a surname can be applied with any fee based or free genealogy database. The technique or search fields may be different, but the principle could be used in FamilySearch, for example.

  • Andrea Groen

    I love and appreciate this tip and will be using it to try to find my relative that seems to have gone missing. Will you give me a quick strategy example if the first name is known by Sidney, Henderson, and SH? Surname is Hughs (or Hughes or Huse).


    • LisaL

      Great question, Andrea! I would try a search with just Sidney, then try just Henderson, then try Sidney Henderson and then S. H. and then try S. Henderson and possibly Sidney H. If you know a birth date, death date or other information you can include that, too. You can reverse this and do a no first name search by searching the various Hughes spellings and using the birth and death dates to narrow the field. Hope that helps!

  • Rachel Malone

    Hi Lisa!

    I feel that I’m an Advanced Genealogist. Been researching for the past almost 5 years on and off. Reading your tips I feel that I can become an Intermediate Researcher, you’ve given light to websites, general tips, books, and much more to help me in my quest! Thank you!

    Although I must admit, I’ve hit a brick wall and it irritates me. I was hoping you might give me some advise for this. Unfortunately I’m limited in travel, I live in the big state of Texas, so it feels like forever to get out of (haha). I have a world explorer subscription with Ancestry, and like it a lot! I’ve been able to trace certain lineages back to 1500-1300’s UK, France and Germany. I’m having a difficult time with the lesser European counties though, but that’s a whole other can of beans.
    Anyways, I’m looking for the mother of my 2nd Great Grandfather Lewis Thomas, which is wife of 3rd Great Grandfather John Asbury Thomas. I have no name or any information on her. I’ve tried in searches with the birth of child Lewis in the county and state which he was born (Wayne, KY), and marriage to husband John just in the same state and surrounding states, no results. I’ve searched with different spellings of child Lewis’ name, just the initials of husband John, but still no results. Lewis was born in 1831, so I assumed her and John would have been married between 1820-1830 for John was born in 1800, (Yes, I did my math! Ha). Since figuring that range, I figured there might be older siblings, but without avail, no results. I also figured she might be born between 1800-1805ish. I feel I’ve hit a black hole in my search for my 3rd Great Grandmother. I assume she died in childbirth with Lewis because John remarried to a Louisa McGill in 1837 and had children with her. Lewis migrated to Burnet Co, Tx, married to Margaret Cates, and had 8 children.

    Do you think I could be exhausting too much research, and should just think John and Louisa had a child out of wedlock? Or is my 3rd Great Grandmother possibly Native American (which I don’t know if they kept records back then)?

    Any tips or advise just to find her surname would be astronomical!

    • LisaL

      Wow, this is a tough brick wall! On the theory that Lewis’s mother died in childbirth or at least when he was a child, it’s possible he could appear in a maternal grandfather’s will/estate. In other words, Lewis could have been named in a maternal grandfather’s will as inheriting his mother’s portion. Finding if this occurred is tough, but check with the KY archives and see if they have a index that would list any records that Lewis was in. [I’ve done this in VA, but can’t find this type of index for NC, so it really depends on the individual states.] Next, look closely at John A Thomas’s neighbors. Often couples who married lived in close proximity or the families were associated in some way. Look at his deeds and records and see who consistently shows up close by. Consider researching those lines for potential clues to a connection through marriage. It’s a long shot, but occasionally, those work out.

  • Belle

    Greetings Lisal. Thanks for the article I will be applying this to my search.
    I was wondering if you had any specific tips pertaining to the Caribbean e.g. Jamaica. I am struggling with my female ancestors a few of them. One born in or around 1883 as stated on her death certificate. I have been searching with no luck as of yet for about 4 years.

    It seems search methods may be different as Jamaica. I am currently looking for when the census started on the island as well.

    Thank you

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