12 Strategies for Using FamilySearch Full-Text Search

by | 29 Feb 2024

Updated 19 March 2024

FamilySearch has launched an experimental full-text search feature for its collection of image-only genealogical records, offering a fundamental shift in how we access records. At launch, over 100 million searchable records are available in FamilySearch Full-Text Search, including U.S. land and probate records, some from the Freedmen’s Bureau, Mexican notarial records, and U.S. plantation records from the Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations collection. This tool is a game-changer for locating people who don’t often appear in indexes, such as witnesses, neighbors, and enslaved individuals, or for finding people in unexpected places. To access this new tool, visit FamilySearch Labs.

Full-text search uses AI to transcribe handwritten documents so, as you might expect, not all words are extracted accurately. Creative searching and using wildcards (* and ?) is key! Beyond searching for names, combinations of specific key terms can help you discover records related to your ancestors. Try the following suggestions to make your research process more efficient and productive, perhaps revealing a picture of your family history that was “hidden in plain sight.”

  1. Use Search Filters
    After entering your search, use the filters above the search results to filter by date, record type, location, or collection. Clicking on filter options such as “United States” will provide additional filters, such as state names and then counties. Dates can be filtered by century and decade. Don’t overfilter, however, or you may miss results from unexpected places or collections. Alternatively, use locations (e.g., county names) and dates as keywords instead of filters.

    Use filters to narrow results from the experimental FamilySearch Full-Text Search.
  2. Name Proximity Searches
    Search for known family surnames in combination, such as “Rodgers” and “Caldwell,” with results filtered to location. This helps to find connections between families that won’t appear in traditional indexes, such as in-laws, witnesses, neighbors, and bondsmen. Remember, AI might interpret old handwriting creatively, so consider spelling variations. Use the + before each name or phrase to force only results that include that term (e.g., +”John Rodgers” +Caldwell). For names associated with famous people or common usage, such as “Lincoln,” use the – sign to exclude terms (e.g., +”Lincoln” -Abraham).
  3. Year-Specific Searches
    Date-filtered results from AI-transcribed text can be quirky since a document often includes multiple dates. To search for a specific date, try a surname combined with a year to search for specific events such as the date a deed was written, a death date recorded in a probate record, etc. For instance, enter “1834” and “Wilson” to unearth records related to a specific ancestor’s activities or life events during that year.
  4. Landmarks as Clues
    Using known landmarks or geographical features in combination with a given name or surname might reveal documents identifying your ancestors’ property near identifiable natural features or enslaved individuals associated with a plantation. For example, a search for “Turnip Creek” and “Rodgers,” filtered to Lunenburg County, Virginia, identifies deeds for property along Turnip Creek that include the name Rodgers. Or search for a geographical feature on its own to locate neighbors’ records.
  5. Female Connections
    Search for records linking spouses using both surnames to potentially uncover previously unknown relationships. For example, entering “Brewer” and “Gay” could help find documents connecting these families, such as a will naming a married granddaughter. Or search for men (fathers, brothers, husbands, uncles) by their full name or surname in combination with the given name of a female.
  6. Witness and Surname Combination
    Witnesses can provide a side door to finding more about your ancestors. Try combining a known associate or neighbor’s surname with your ancestor’s. This could pull up documents where both individuals are mentioned, offering new insights into familial or social connections.
  7. Occupational References
    If your ancestor had a specific occupation, pair it with their surname for targeted searches. Inputting “blacksmith” and “Davis” could help narrow down records to those relevant to an ancestor known for this trade, as occupations were often noted in deeds and wills.
  8. Itemized Inheritances
    Will and estate inventories often list specific items. Searching for unique items associated with your ancestor, either with or without a surname. A search for “silver watch” or “red brindle cow” and “Cochran” could bring up probate records or deeds listing these personal items, possibly offering a clue as to how they came into your ancestor’s possession.
  9. Boundary Descriptions
    Property sometimes changed hands without leaving a clear trail. To locate deeds or other records relating to a particular property without using names, search for boundary descriptions like “south 47 west” or “three pines and a red oak.” Or try acreage (“50 acres”) combined with a geographical feature (“Hickman Creek”). These are terms easily misread by AI, so try various combinations.
  10. Enslaved Individuals
    To find enslaved individuals identified in deeds, probate, and plantation records, search with the terms that would appear in these historical contexts, such as “negro” or “slave,” along with a given name or multiple given names. Add an age or gender descriptor such as “male child,” “negro woman,” or “30-year-old” to further refine your search.
  11. Nicknames, Middle Names, and Reversed Names
    Given the quirks of AI interpretation, searching for nicknames or middle names alongside the surname could uncover hard-to-find documents. For example, “Peggy” and “Margaret Johnson” might bring up records that refer to the same person under different names. Swap the given name and surname in phrase searches to pick up name variants in indexes, inventories, and other lists, such as separate searches for “Crisp William” and “William Crisp.”
  12. Understand its Limitations
    Phrase searches in exact quotes will generally return documents that contain the quoted phrase, or something close. For example, a search for “William Crisp” will find deeds containing the name William Crisp and close variants like William H. Crisp. Searches for multiple words or quoted phrases, however, will return results that include one or both keywords or phrases. Also, be aware that document titles with dates may not reflect the date of the document itself. Look anyway!

While AI’s interpretation of handwritten texts can be imperfect, it also means that every search is an adventure, a puzzle waiting to be solved. Embrace the quirks, experiment with different terms, and remember that each new find is a piece of history reclaimed. Happy hunting!

©2024 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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