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Where is my ancestor hiding in that big database?

Often times the large database providers like FamilySearch, Ancestry and FindMyPast will release a really big database that encompasses an entire state or maybe even a whole country. The dates of the database look promising - perhaps you'll see 1610-1950.  You think "Perfect, my ancestor should be in there!"  

But then you search and you don't find them.  What on earth is going on?

There are two issues at play.

First the date range of the database. Let's take a look at the Ancestry database "Rhode Island, Wills and Probate Records, 1582-1932" as an example. You think to yourself, and rightly so, "But Rhode Island didn't exist in 1582!"

From what I understand (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is that it is a standard practice of archivists to title or name a date range so that it encompasses the entire date range found in a record set rather than the logical and expected date range of the jurisdiction (in this case Rhode Island). So for instance, if a record from London, England from 1582 gets recorded in the Rhode Island probate records in 1685 then it is included as part of the date range of the database record set.

Don't worry about the date range of the database. That's actually the smaller of the two issues.

The second issue, and this is the really important one, is that big databases are really made up of a bunch of smaller databases. You will encounter this in most state databases especially when the individual counties have started recording at different times.

Let's take a look at the "Rhode Island, Wills and Probate Records, 1582-1932" database again. If you go straight to the Search box and type in your ancestor's name you may be frustrated when they don't turn up in the results.

A better approach is to "browse" the database information before using the search feature. 

You'll find the browse feature on the main page of the database on the right hand side. It says "Browse this collection."

Rhode Island, Wills and Probate Records, 1582-1932

Click on the arrow to the right of the word "Choose" and you will  find a county list. Select the county that your ancestor lived in.

What you'll soon discover is that there are different date ranges for each county. See these examples for Bristol County, Rhode Island and Providence County, Rhode Island.

Bristol County Rhode Island Probate records on
Bristol County Rhode Island Probate records on
Providence County Rhode Island Probate records on
Providence County Rhode Island Probate records on

By determining the date range for your target county through the browse feature you'll be able to figure out in advance whether your ancestor is likely to be included in the database. Knowing that your ancestor's 1685 will is not included in the Bristol County database will save you the frustration of many futile searches.

It's important to keep in mind that there are at least two considerations impacting the date range of any given county.

When you search databases in any of the original colonies you have to consider that counties were formed, divided and re-formed over time. One county may have been formed in the 1600s and another in the 1800s. You really need to understand when counties were formed to know where to find the records you were looking for.

For instance, Norfolk County, Massachusetts was founded in 1793. Records from 1793 to the present will be found in Norfolk County. Records before 1793 will be found in Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

The other consideration is that regardless of when a county was formed they may have started recording records at different times from other counties in the same state. What's even worse is it may vary from town to town. 

You can use a tool such as the Research Guidance feature in Legacy Family Tree software as well as research guides such as the FamilySearch Wiki to find out what records were created when for the place where your ancestor lived.

The next time you use a large online database don't get frustrated when your ancestor goes missing! Take charge by understanding specifically what records are included in the database for your specific county. 

For more research strategies from Marian Pierre-Louis see her classes in the Legacy Webinar Library.

Good luck with your research!




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