1. Google them repeatedly.
And check other websites regularly as well, obviously. The internet changes every day, you never know when things will have been updated. I go back to the same sites again and again, and Google the same things often over time, just to see what new info is thrown up – you’d be surprised! Google is possibly the ultimate tool for a genealogist – I’ll talk a bit more about making the most of it another time.
2. Buy their certificates.
I know it can be pricey, but it is worth it. I admit, I don’t have all of the ones I want yet, but I intend to get them. There’s nothing like seeing your ancestor’s handwriting – you can also compare this against other examples of their handwriting if necessary too. (Or seeing the ‘X’ and realising they’re illiterate – equally useful and interesting.) They are invaluable in checking and confirming your information; things can be mis-transcribed all too easily. And they’ll stop you assuming someone is your ancestor when they’re not.
3. Record your non-ancestors too.
If you find an individual and a family who you a) have confirmed aren’t connected for whatever reason or b) thought might be yours, but then turn out not to be – take note. The mistakes you make and then rectify are equally a part of your genealogical ‘journey’; cheesy but true nonetheless. On a more practical note, it means you have a definitive record of people you’ve discounted, that you can check future possibilities against. Plus, you never know when someone might contact you wondering if you’re connected to them, and instead of just saying ‘no’, you can say ‘no, but is this a possible candidate?’ – and then hopefully karma will return the favour for you someday too!
4. Don’t ignore their siblings!
I’ve got a real bee in my bonnet about this – see On siblings and extended family. What I would say is, take the time to work through them, even if it’s just basic names and birthdates, and see how much easier it then makes it to see the direct line afterwards. In an area where there are lots of people with the same surname, and half of them have the same Christian name too (Mary, anyone? I think I must have at least 20 different Marys in my tree!) it can make all the difference. It’s like undoing a giant knot – time consuming and frustrating, but ultimately the only way you’re going to get to the one thread you’re after!
5. Broaden your parameters.
If you can’t find an ancestor based on what you think you know about them, take it away. I know that Ancestry and other websites are constantly telling you that ‘even a guess can help’ – but sometimes a guess can be such a hindrance! Can’t find an ancestor? Take letters out of names, take away birth dates and places, triple check everything in handwriting for possible spelling and/or transcription errors. Search for every member of a household using the minimum possible information, even ones who you suspect might be dead or living elsewhere. The tiniest clues can help. You will find them somewhere!