Search the Registers

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How To Search:

  1. Type a search with the words that you are looking for in the entry box, then click [Search].
  2. Any Word: Just type one or more words to find any of the words. [ Search ANY ] is the default.
  3. All Words: Type more than one word and select [ Search ALL ] to find all of the words. Or you can use Booleans (see below).
  4. Exact Phrase: "…" You can search for exact phrases by surrounding them in double quotes. Or you can just type the words and select [ Search EXACT ].
  5. Boolean Operators [ + - ]: Use + in front of each word or a quoted phrase that you require. Use - in front of each word that you want to exclude.
  6. Boolean Expressions: AND OR NOT ( ) Use AND, OR, NOT, (, and ) to form a Boolean expression. AND requires, OR allows, NOT excludes. Use double quotes to protect the words "and", "or", or "not" in a phrase.


Query Gets pages with
Moses Ramsdale 'Moses' or 'Ramsdale' or both
"Moses Ramsdale" the phrase 'Moses Ramsdale'
+Moses +Ramsdale 'Moses' and 'Ramsdale'
+Moses -Ramsdale 'Moses' but not 'Ramsdale'
+Ramsdale -"Ramsdal" 'Ramsdale' but not 'Ramsdal'
(Moses OR Ramsdale) AND NOT Ramsdal 'Moses' or 'Ramsdale', and without 'Ramsdal'

Capitalization doesn't matter - the search engine is not case sensitive. The ranked results will come from a total match on the words and phrases which you supply, so try to think of several specific terms for your topic and spell them correctly. It may help to include important plurals and derived words too, like [address addresses contact contacting information].

Using A Search Engine

Search engines are very powerful tools for searching the Internet for information using keywords and phrases. Electronic scouts, known as "robots" or "spiders" explore Web sites and "index" each word within their pages. This information is then compiled into a searchable database. When you enter a query into a search engine, it matches your query words against the records it has in its database to present a listing of possible documents meeting your request.

The key advantage to using a search engine to find your surnames is the size of their index, which typically have information on millions and millions of Web pages. This size does have its drawbacks, however. Due to the sheer number of results possible with a search engine, there is often no way (outside of visiting each one yourself) to determine the quality of the links or their relevancy to your search topic. This can often leave you more frustrated than when you began.

Search Engine Mathematics

One of the best ways to focus your search is to use what many call Search Engine Mathematics. Two simple operators, add (+), subtract (-), can go a long way toward narrowing your search results. These operators are supported by the majority of the major search engines and directories and are a lot easier to learn and remember for most users than the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT.

Using the (+) Symbol

Beginning each keyword with a plus (+) symbol helps you to tell the search engine to find pages that include all of the words that you enter, not just some of them. For example, consider a search where you are looking for the surname SMITH. Typing that name into AltaVista brings up 3,002,420 pages which match your search request. But assume that what you are really looking for is information on a man named Jebediah Smith. You would want to look for pages which contain both names. Typing in your search request this way:

+smith +jebediah

would bring the number of results down to a much more manageable 635 pages. Now the majority of these pages probably have nothing to do with genealogy, but we will get to that in a moment.

Using the (-) Symbol

The minus (-) symbol allows you to search for pages that have one word on them but not another word. This is especially useful in the case of surnames which have a dual meaning. For example, imagine you want information about the surname RICE, but don't want to be overwhelmed by pages relating to cooking and food. You could search this way:

rice -food -cook

When you enter the term rice into AltaVista, 983,420 pages are found which match your request. If you exclude the words food and cook, as in the above example, the number of returned pages drops to 787,800. That is still a lot of pages, but it's almost 200,000 less than it was when you started.

This minus (-) technique also comes in handy when you want to exclude information about celebrities (sports heroes, movie stars, etc) who share your surname from your results.

Phrase Searching

It is all well and good to use the plus (+) symbol to include both the given name and the surname of an ancestor in your search, but it does you little good when searching the vast majority of family sites that have their pedigree information in databases. There are so many names in such databases, that it is likely that your names will both be found, just not in relation to one another. Consider your search for an ancestor by the name of Jebediah Smith:

+smith +jebediah

This would turn up any page which contained both of those names - not taking into consideration the fact that the page has a Jebediah BRAZELTON and a Bob SMITH, but no trace of a Jebediah SMITH. This is where phrase searching comes in handy. Phrase searching is a technique used to ask search engines to find documents that contain words in the exact order that you specify. You do this by enclosing your terms with quotation marks. Using the previous example, this would look like:

"jebediah smith"

The search engine basically treats this as one search term and will only return pages that contain the term jebediah smith, as a phrase where the two words are next to each other. This search technique too has its problems. In the Jebediah SMITH example, the search would not have returned any pages which list last name first in their database, i.e. SMITH, Jebediah.

Pretty much all of the major search engines support phrase searching. AltaVista and Google actually attempt to perform automatic phrase searching as their default setting (meaning that you don't have to enclose your search terms in quotation marks when using those search engines).

Wild Cards

Wild card searches are an extremely useful tool for genealogists. A wild card search allows you to enter a character (*) to search for plurals of a word or variations in spelling. Since names can be spelled in so many different ways, it is a tremendous help to be able to automate your search with the use of a wild card character. This saves you from the tedious job of searching individually on all possible spellings of the name.

For example, I know that when I research my OWENS surname, I must also search on the singular OWEN. The wild card search:


would return all matches to OWEN and OWENS.

The major search engines which currently support wild card searches are AOL Search, AltaVista, HotBot, MSN Search, Northern Light, Snap, and Yahoo. Excite, Google, Go, GoTo, LookSmart, Lycos, and WebCrawler do not currently support the wild card character.

Narrowing the Search

Now that you have learned how to use the search engines effectively, it is time to learn how to fine-tune those searches to turn up pages on your specific family and not anyone who happens to share a surname. Several techniques can be used to turn those 3,002,420 SMITH pages in AltaVista into a reasonable amount of Web sites with a decent chance of containing the information that you are looking for.

Include Given Names

Searching for given names in conjunction with surnames can really help to focus your search.

+john +smith

In cases such as this, where the name is such a common one, this technique may not help you to narrow the search results enough. Try searching for a family member with a more unusual name (such as Jebediah). Try as many different combinations as you can think of, because not everyone will know everything that you do about the family. Remember to try phrase searching as well.

Include Place Names

Why look at SMITH family Web pages from Zimbabwe when your SMITH ancestors were from Virginia? Most family historians tend to mention locations in their online information, so use this to your advantage. Use the math search technique and try searching for:

+smith +virginia

That takes the 3,000,000+ SMITH sites on AltaVista down to about 36,000. Not bad for a simple little search term.

Search for Less Common Surnames

One of the most often overlooked ways of narrowing your search is to search first on the more uncommon surnames in your family tree. If your SMITHS married into the RAMSDALE family, then start by searching for RAMSDALE. They will be a lot easier to find and will, hopefully, lead you right back to your SMITH family. The downside to this type of search, however, is that you are limiting information sources to people who knew that the SMITH and RAMSDALE families were connected in the first place.

How to Use Soundex Codes

Soundex is a phonetic coding system used to group together surnames that sound alike (SMITH/SMYTH). This helps to find a surname in census documents and surname databases, even though it may have been recorded under various spellings.

Here's How:

  1. Every Soundex code consists of a letter(always the first letter of the surname) and three numbers.
  2. Write out your surname and keep the first letter, but cross out any remaining vowels (A, E, I, O, U, Y), and the letters H and W.
  3. If there are any double letters, then cross out the second of the two letters.
  4. Cross out any letters remaining after the first four letters.
  5. Assign the following codes to the remaining letters, remembering to leave the first letter as it is.
  6. Replace these letters in your code with the number 1: B, P, F, V
  7. Replace these letters in your code with the number 2: C, S, K, G, J, Q, X, Z
  8. Replace these letters in your code with the number 3: D, T
  9. Replace these letters in your code with the number 4: L
  10. Replace these letters in your code with the number 5: M, N
  11. Replace these letters in your code with the number 6: R
  12. If the surname has less than three letters left, assign zeros to those places.
  13. Your final code should be the first letter of the surname followed by three numbers i.e. S530 (SMITH)
  14. If Soundex sounds difficult this online Soundex converter will convert your surname for you.


  1. Names are sometimes spelled in different ways or misread when being indexed. You may have better results if you search under several possible Soundex codes.
  2. If the surname has a prefix, such as D', De, du, le, Van, or Von, code it both with and without the prefix because it might be listed under either code. Mc and Mac are not considered prefixes in the Soundex.
  3. Two or more letters with the same code number that appear in sequence in a surname are assigned one number. Thus the CK in Jackson would be coded as 2, not 22.

Soundex Coding Rules - Common Mistakes, Exceptions, and Examples

The Soundex Coding scheme works very well for most surnames. As with anything in life, however, there are exceptions to the rule. Some of these exceptions are so ambiguous that their Soundex codes in the U.S. Federal census indexes will vary, depending upon the interpretation of the people who coded the index. Presented here are examples of exceptions to the Soundex coding rules, along with alternative coding techniques to try when searching for surnames that fall under these exceptions.

  1. Exception 1: Names with adjacent letters having the same equivalent number are coded as one letter with a single number. Thus the letters CK in the surname JACKSON would be coded as 2, not 22. This rule also applies to instances of double letters, such as the LL in Phillips. This is the most ambiguous rule in the Soundex system, however, as technically you are supposed to consider the letters H and W as separators, despite the fact that you don't code those letters. Therefore, in surnames where two letters with the same equivalent number are separated by an H or a W, they would each be considered a single occurance and given their own code number. The SC in Ashcroft would be coded as 22, because the S and C are separated by an H, despite the fact that the H is not itself coded.
  2. Exception 2: Sometimes prefixes to names such as D', De, du, le, Van, or Von are omitted when coding the a surname. This will vary from census to census, and between the people who coded the names. Code your surname both with and without the prefix for better results.
  3. Exception 3: People with a surname of more than one word, or whose surname is commonly presented before their given name, such as Native Americans and Chinese, may be difficult to locate in a Soundex index. Names may have been coded under the name which appears last, even though it might not be the actual surname. In the case of multi-word surnames, only one of the words may have been coded. Check for your surname under several different variations.
  4. Exception 4: Some members of religious orders may be indexed with the name "Sister" or "Brother" considered as their surname for indexing purposes. This would respond to Soundex codes S236 and B636, respectively. Check the entire list for these codes, as they are not always listed alphabetically.

The Soundex code for Ramsdale, Ramsdall, Ramsdell, Ramsdaille, Ramsdill and Romsdale is: R523