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Using Keywords in Genealogical Research

Using Keywords 2


In my last blog post, I explained the benefits of creating a keyword list as a tool to help you organize your research. This however begs the question - How does using keywords lead to research success in genealogy? Using keywords can help researchers follow the paper trail and build the context around their ancestor’s life story. For continuity’s sake, I am sticking with the example that I used in the last post: the newspaper article about Capt. Bensley Collenette of Boston, Massachusetts.

How do keywords lead you down the paper trail?

I think of keywords as mental triggers. With experience follows greater intuition and the ability to point out that certain facts or keywords indicate there is more of a paper trail to follow. As an isolated example, this newspaper article provides several leads for more records. Capt. Collenette was noted to be a naturalized citizen of Boston, which suggests that his naturalization petition could be obtained and provide more genealogical information. In fact, in retrieving Captain Collenette’s petition for naturalization, the source offers a correction to the information in the newspaper article. Rather than being born in Germany, he was born on the Island of Guernsey, located in the English Channel.[1] In the final sentence of the article, the writer noted the Captain ran a navigation school in Boston. When an ancestor is identified as operating a place of business, the city directories are a great source for finding more about the history surrounding a particular business or institution.

Capt. Collenette’s qualifications for navigating and piloting ships offer clues to extending the paper trail. The article states that Captain Collenette was qualified as a master mariner in both England and the United States. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England has custody of certificates for qualified Masters and Mates in the United Kingdom, but digitized copies are searchable on Ancestry.com. Masters of vessels in the United States required an official endorsement from the ship’s owner if a new master were to pilot that vessel. The ledger books containing endorsement of masters are held by the National Archives and Records Administration. I did locate Capt. Collenette among these records as the master of the steam yacht Myopia, allowing me to add one more kernel of information to the history of his seafaring life.[2]

Using Keywords in Genealogical Research

Using Keywords in Search Engines

For terms that are unfamiliar, you should start by trying all of these terms in a Google search. This is a good strategy for two reasons:

  • You can mine the vast resources of the Internet, allowing you to locate some sources quickly.
  • You can measure and analyze the appearance of a keyword.

The article mentions various ships that Capt. Collenette served on, so using Google, I searched for these different ships. I was able to locate some history about these vessels, as well as some pictures. Using keywords in Google however takes some practice and playing around with the different terms. For example, in searching the names of vessels, you often have to precede the name with the type of vessel. Google is the type of search engine that works best when you communicate exactly what you’re looking for. Webinars by Lisa Louise Cooke and Thomas MacEntee offer great advice on how to use Google and other search engines for genealogy.


Steam yacht lurline
Steam Yacht Lurline. Image Source: Library of Congress.


Don’t overlook the search results in Google Books and Google Scholar. I found this method particularly helpful when I was looking up the occupation of steamboat inspector. Google had digitized copies of Annual Reports of Supervising Inspector General, Steamboat Inspection Service. [3] While no mention of Capt. Collenette was made among these publications, I was able to learn a lot more concerning the nature and specific qualifications for the position.

If there are famous people, noted officials or institutions mentioned in a particular source, extend your keyword search using catalogs like ArchiveGrid and Periodical Source Index. Using keyword searches in catalogs, I was able to locate papers for local steamboat inspector Andrew D. Burnham, U.S. Inspector General George Starbuck, and Edward Winslow, Collector of Customs for the Port of Boston.

The keyword strategy can result in dead ends sometimes, but offers a methodical and calculated approach to seeking out other sources. When trying this type of research, it might be helpful to follow the trail of keywords mentioned in secondary sources. Sometimes, we are able to gather a lot more details and history if we generalize what we are looking for. A ship name might be too specific or offer only limited information, but if we broaden to a shipping line, like the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, there are a lot more sources available for research. Analyzing all your sources for repetitions in keywords or subjects can definitely lead to more information.

See what you can find using keywords in your research and let me know what you find!


[1] "United States, New England, Petitions for Naturalization, 1787-1906," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1951-34239-28679-49?cc=2064580 : 22 May 2014), Massachusetts > US Circuit Courts > US Circuit Court > Petitions for naturalization, 1874 Oct, vol 82 > image 357 of 430; citing NARA NAID 4752894, National Archives at Boston, Waltham, Massachusetts.

[2] “Records of Endorsements of Change of Master of Enrolled & Licensed Vessels, 1894-1914,” District of Boston, Massachusetts, Vol. 312, National Archives at Boston.

[3] A more complete collection of these reports is available through the Hathitrust Digital Library.


Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).


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Searching a name in a newspaper index? If you get no results when entering the name in the name fields, do an exact search in the keyword field.

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