Thought for Today
"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends and the most patient of teachers."
--Charles W. Eliot
Along Those Lines...
The Old Switcheroo Search
by George G. Morgan
There are days when I'm researching my ancestors in indexes that I'd like to just to go berserk! You know the feeling, I'm sure. You've tracked down evidence that has conclusively pointed to an event occurring in a particular place. Yet, when you start searching through the index, there's either no information, or, when you finally find it, you discover that it is not entered as you expected it to be.
I have learned over the years to maintain my composure (more or less) and to change my search strategy. Instead of doing what we might consider a "traditional search," I employ something I call "the old switcheroo." In Along Those Lines... this week, I want to share the research tacks I take and hope that you might find some ideas for attacking some of your brick walls.
What's in a Name?
We learned in school to use the table of contents and the index in order to locate specific information within a book. That methodology is a basic research skill that we transfer to our genealogical quest.
Think about it. We use table of contents to locate a general area of the book, perhaps a chapter or volume, and the index to locate specific reference items, such as pages on which the indexed item appears. If the indexer did a good job, he or she produced a correct index, it was readied for publication in the book, it was edited for accuracy, and then it was printed. You now have an accurate (hopefully) and usable pointer to get you to exactly what you need.
Everyone needs an editor to double-check his or her work. Unfortunately, though, some of the clerks in the courthouses made mistakes when they entered data and/or when they transcribed materials into ledgers. They also made errors when they created indexes, and all of these things can compound to lead us astray. Some of the common errors I find in courthouse records include the following:
Names are misspelled
If a name can be butchered, it will be. Sometimes a document or index entry was spelled out phonetically because an ancestor couldn't read or write. Other times the clerk was just sloppy. One of my ancestral surnames is SWORDS, and I've seen in written in all varieties of records as SWORD, SOARDS, SORDS, SOARS, SWARDS, and SEWARDS--all for the same ancestor.
Surname and given name are reversed
This error is most commonly found when someone who is creating an index and transcribing names from documents becomes dyslexic. I've seen this in bride and groom indexes, census schedules, court case indexes, and in any number of files in cabinets.
Transcriptions were botched
Imagine someone transcribing or indexing horizontal lines of columnar information, such as a census schedule. The birthplace for an individual and other family members is listed as Germany. The transcriber may have carefully written the word "Germany" on each line, or he/she may have used the abbreviation for ditto ("do.") or may have used a ditto mark. It's easy to get onto an incorrect line and use a ditto when instead the word "Poland" should have been entered, or vice versa.
Handwriting was illegible
I have seen countless examples in old records and images in online databases in which the original handwriting was either so archaic or illegible as to almost defy interpretation. Yet in other cases, a transcriber or indexer made a simple mistake that no one caught. Imagine the English parish record entry for the surname Cross in which the old English character for the first "s" looks like the letter "f" and an incorrect transcription of the surname as "Crofs"--or worse.
Another common error in census indexing occurs when letters which have loops below the line, such as lower case f, g, j, p, q, the old English s, and y. These letters can influence the appearance of the entry on the line below. A below-the-line loop for the second "g" in Gregory was misread as a loop on top of a lower case "n" in the line below, and the transcription showed the letter "h" instead. And then there are the countless times that the letters "c" and "e" are confused. I saw a ship's name of the RMS Aretie in a list of immigration vessels. The actual name was the RMS Arctic.
There are certainly other examples of transcription and indexing mistakes, but these are among the most prevalent that I seem to see.
The Old Switcheroo
When names are missing from a place that I was certainly expecting to find them, I switch things around. I try to place myself in the position of the person who was doing the work, and then imagine all the ways that I might possibly screw it up. My first switcheroo is to search for the forename(s)/given name(s) in the surname area and the surname in the forename area. This approach holds true in handwritten or typed indexes and also in computer databases. You would be surprised how many times the transposition of names occurs!
In online databases that provide the option of performing an exact search or a Soundex search, I'll next try both the forename/surname search and the reversed version. This may yield a lot more search results to review, but it is a powerful method of searching through similar spellings that resulted from all varieties of errors.
Next, based on the fact that surnames can be mangled in so many ways, I may toss out the surname altogether and conduct my search strictly on forename. This can be especially helpful if the surname was a common one but the forename may be less common. If you were searching for the SCHMITT in a state's census population schedules, you might be working all night long, especially if the name had been spelled instead as SMITT, SCHMIDT, or some other way. Instead, I'll try to select the least common forename of a family member and conduct the search strictly on that. For example, I searched for the name Constanza in the state, and then, locating the possible matches that looked or sounded like SCHMIDT, I headed off in search of that more limited group of possibilities.
Always try searching for the least common name in order to narrow your search. In the marriage records at the Family Records Centre in London, England, the older books are organized by year and then quarter. They are then divided into alphabetical lists, A-C, D-F, etc. There are two sets of indexes: one for the groom's surname and one for the bride's maiden surname. If you are looking for the marriage record entry for the Thomas JONES who was your great-grandfather, in the second quarter of 1872, you would be dismayed to find that there might be 28 of them listed. It would be more successful to search first for the bride's name, Elizabeth HIGGENBOTHAM. When you find a listing with her name, date and place of marriage, and the reference to the actual record page number, you can then return to the JONES list and locate a corresponding Thomas JONES whose date, place, and page reference are a match to Elizabeth HIGGENBOTHAM's record. You have a quicker method of making a match.
Switcheroo Web Searches
If you remember equations in math class, you'll recall that the order of the operations was important. You know, (a+b)x(c+d)-(e+f)=g. The first rule in solving the equation was that the values in the parentheses are performed first and then the other functions are handled. The fascinating thing about algebraic equations was that you could change the order of the operations around, such as
(e+f)-(a+b)x(c+d)=g, and you can get a very different result. And so it is with search engines.
When you use your favorite search engine to search for information, remember that it is really performing a mathematical function. Entering any two words causes most search engines to "assume" that you want to match on webpages in which both words are present. Therefore, the search engine "assumes" that you want to use the search term AND, or the shortcut sign for AND ("+"). The order in which you place the words also makes a difference in the search results you get back and/or the relevancy ranking sequence in which they are presented back to you. The search engines work on the premise that you are entering the most important term/phrase first, the next important next, and so on. The engine locates the webpages based on relevancy criteria and then ranks them. Consider the following searches.
thomas "north dakota" census
I entered this sequence of this first search of the word thomas, followed by the exact phrase (in quotes) "north dakota" and census in Google. My search yielded 65,700 results. However, in the next search, below, I re-sequenced or restructured the search and was presented with 66,200 results, and the sequencing was quite different.
census "north dakota" Thomas
You might also consider using different search engines to perform identical searches. Remember that different engines index different resources and use slightly different search logic in the way they perform the search and sequence the search results for you.
Performing the same two searches using Teoma (www.teoma.com), in the same sequence, I was presented with 17,600 search results in the first and 17,700 in the second, and in different sequences. And in the new Yahoo! Search (http://search.yahoo.com ), the same searches yielded 91,300 and 92,500 results respectively. There really is a difference, and so it makes sense to learn to structure searches and then to switch them around.
Change Is Good!
Changing the way you search for information in printed indexes, in online databases, and across the Web can often make a significant difference in your success in locating what you need. Use a little creative thought processing and use "the old switcheroo" method, and you may be surprised at what you may find.
George is president and a proud member of the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors. Visit the ISFHWE (www.rootsweb.com/~cgc/) website.
Visit George's website (ahaseminars.com/atl) for information about speaking engagements.
Copyright 2004, MyFamily.com. All rights reserved.
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Ancestry Quick Tip
Searching for Obituaries
I knew the date my Civil War relative died and thought the obituary would be found in the paper where his parents resided, which was also the county seat. I was disappointed not to find it. It turned out that the county seat for Whiteside County, Illinois, was, for a short time, in Sterling rather than Morrison. The Sterling paper had printed the letter from the soldier's Commanding Officer to his father, describing how he died in the battle of Perryville, Kentucky. This was even more precious than an obituary would have been. My thanks to the knowledgeable Morrison librarian who made the suggestion. I would never have thought to look there if it weren't for her.
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Clipping of the Day
From the Adams Centinel (Gettysburg, Pa.), 10 September 1823, page 4:
The march of improvement is both rapid and wonderful, and, as affording some evidence of the advancement of this country, it is stated, that in 1790 there were only 75 post offices in the U. States, now there are upwards of 4,500. In 1790 the extent of post roads was 1873 miles--in 1823 upward of 73,492 miles....
In Philadelphia, there are eight Episcopal churches; (says the Trenton Emporium) 4 Lutheran; four Roman Catholic; four German Reformed; eleven Presbyterian; five Baptist; seven Methodist; one Universalist; one New Jerusalem Temple; five Friends' Meeting Houses; one Unitarian church; three Hebrew Synagogues; and five African churches; making in the whole fifty-nine places of worship.
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