Hints, tips and cheats to bring your family history to life - Part 1: Ancestry


14 September 2020
In the first of his new series, Paul Chiddicks shares his Ancestry tips and tricks, sharing lesser-known ‘search secrets’ that help you get the most of this popular genealogy website.

Over the coming weeks and months, I want to share with you ‘My Genealogy’ hints, tips and cheats, that will make your genealogy searches burst into life. These are not just my own tips; these are ones that I have discovered from others along the way. It’s about learning and sharing, so feel free to add your own and drop me a message!

We can’t all be expected know everything about every website we encounter, but by sharing and collaborating, we can certainly make things a little easier for ourselves.

In this first blog, I will concentrate on Ancestry, but in future blogs I will also take a look at the other major genealogical subscription sites, plus take a look at some of the free sites such as Free BMD.

Ancestry Hints

With Ancestry Hints many people complain about the 5,000 or so 'shaky leaves' that Ancestry offers you, but like anything in life, it's not going to be given to you on a plate, it's going to need some work and input from you as well. So, my first piece of advice, never accept a 'hint' until you have fully verified it and proved it, otherwise very quickly, you will be off completely down the wrong road, tracing the wrong set of relatives!

So, what if you appear to have hints on side of your tree but not the other side? Well add some new information to the side of the family with very few hints, thus giving Ancestry a nudge and reminder about this side of the family and watch those new hints come flooding in. You might also be surprised to learn that Ancestry offers hints on only approximately 10% of its entire collection of documents, so just because an ancestor doesn't have any hints, this doesn't mean that the website doesn’t hold any documents for this ancestor. Instead try searching the Card Catalogue for a more specific collection for your forebear.

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Focused search tips

When searching on Ancestry for census returns, they don’t always list all the results immediately. For example, search for John Keyes, born 1865 in Prittlewell and you may get only 1 result, for 1891. However, when you look at that result, you’ll suddenly see suggestions for 1881 and 1901! If you then look at the 1901 entry, you may get a further suggestion for 1911! In theory all these options should be offered after your initial search, but for some reason Ancestry tries to hold out on us and holds these additional searches results back for some reason…

Try using wildcards in your searches; replace letters that are maybe interchangeable in the spelling of the name that you are looking for with an asterisk or question mark.

An asterisk (*) represents zero to five characters. A question mark (?) represents one character. For example a search for Ch?ddicks will match Chiddicks, Chiddick, Chaddick, Chaddicks, plus other derivatives. When searching with wild cards, at least the first or last character must not be a wild card, and all searches containing wild cards must contain at least three non-wild card letters. For example, searching Chiddick* and *hiddicks would work, but searching *hiddick* would not. Experiment and try these out, the more you use them the easier it becomes.

I will cover DNA separately in a future hints, tips and cheats guide, but I must emphasise how important it is to link your tree to your DNA Results! Again, it sounds obvious I know, but how will Ancestry know who to link your DNA with, via Thrulines, if you haven't uploaded a tree yet?

Get busy creating trees!

Another wonderful feature about Ancestry is that you can create as many family trees as you want, there is no limit and they don’t have to all start with you! So, if you wanted to work on a specific line and experiment with relationships and adding people to this tree, you can do this without affecting your main tree.

I use this feature a lot, to help me to prove and disprove a theory. Once I am completely satisfied that I have the correct information, then and only then, do I add this to my main tree. So, you can have multiple trees on the go at the same time, whilst you work out the key relationships within those trees, keeping your master tree safe.

Ancestry search secrets

Now for the stuff that Ancestry keeps hidden and you don’t even know is there!

Take a look at a census entry for one of your ancestors, at the bottom of the image there is a small bar that looks something like this:

If you click the film strip icon it will give you all the images on that roll. In this example we are looking at piece number 5 of 35 and by clicking the film icon, we see all 35 images. If you click the icon on the right of the three, showing the two people, this gives you the names of all the people that are indexed on the same page, great if you have several families living in the same street.

You can also use keyboard shortcuts to move through your results more quickly. For example, pressing ‘r’ will let you edit your search, while ‘p’ brings up a preview of the record you’ve selected. There’s a full list of your hot keys in the bottom-left of the results page, which is shown in the image below.

Hold that search

Found something new, but not completely sure it’s the right person or right document? Then save this search result to your shoebox for later, that way you won’t lose the document, but you can continue searching for other documents, without losing the one you think ‘might be your ancestor’. This allows you to prove or disprove this document at your leisure and you can continue with new searches without the fear of losing your original ‘find’.

Remember, Ancestry has its own YouTube Channel with over 1,000 videos covering every spectrum of genealogy, so if the answer to your problem is not mentioned above, the chances are that the topic you are looking for will be covered in a video tutorial here. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure that we all have our own Ancestry hints, tips and cheats and it’s by sharing and collaborating with each other, that we will all improve our genealogy skills. Please feel free to share your tips with me by e-mail.

Paul Chiddicks

Researching the names:

  • Chiddicks in Essex
  • Daniels in Dublin
  • Keyes in Prittlewell
  • Wootton in Herefordshire and London
  • Day in Gloucester and Kent
  • Barnes London

Follow Paul on Twitter and his blog.