Between bad handwriting, poor spelling, and fuzzy or unclear digital images, records are hard to read. I want to share with you some tricks of the trade I have learned over the years. I hope they help you overcome this obstacle.
Let's look at some examples:
|Screenshot from Ancestry.com, 1880 US Federal Census for Okaw, Shelby county, IL|
Okay, let's look at the first name I have indicated with a red arrow. The last name is Perry and the first name is Mason. (Perry Mason...ha, ha...funny!) Look closely at "Perry". Can you imagine that if you weren't as savvy with cursive writing, you might think it looked like "Pouj" or "Pay". If an indexer saw the name as "Pay" and indexed it as such, then when you look for "Mason Perry", this census would likely not show up.
Let's look at the second name I marked with an arrow. Fisher is the last name and Thomas is the first name. "Fisher" could be seen as "Tisher" or "Jisher", maybe even "Foher". If you are typing in "Thomas Fisher" into your search, you would likely not see anyone with the last name of "Foher" pop up.
Lastly, the third arrow points to "Boly, Jerme A."...or at least that is what it looks like. The young man named here is actually James A. Rowley, son of Hiram Rowley and Rebecca Underwood. Now if you look again, you can make out that the last name might have been written as "Roly", which is phonetically correct, just misspelled.
When you are searching Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org, consider alternate spellings. If Mason Perry was your ancestor and you couldn't find him in a census, have you tried looking for a Mason "Pay"? If your ancestor was James Roly, have you considered looking for him under the name of James "Rowley" or "Rolly"? Changing up the spelling can be one trick to finding your elusive ancestor.
Here's another tip: if you suspect your targeted ancestor is not popping up in searches because their name is indexed wrong, try using a WILD CARD. A "wild card" is a phrase we use to indicate using an * in place of a letter or letters. Let's use Bessie Revis Sherrill as an example.
Bessie Revis was born in about 1885 in Cass County, IL. Let's assume I know that she married a Mr. Sherrill, but I don't know his first name. I would also like to find her parents.
If I were to go to FamilySearch.org, my search would look like this:
I typed in her first and last name. I used the "Any Place" search box by clicking "Any" and added the location. Be sure to ONLY use a county name and state, don't worry about a city, even if you know it. I left the year span empty. I am hoping to find her husband's first name, so in the "Search with a relationship" field, I chose "Spouse" and used the last name of "Sherrill". Here are the results:
I only got one good match, but it did give me Bessie's husband's first name! Hooray! Now, I can go back to FamilySearch and do a search with her husband's first name. Here is what it would look like:
Here are the results:
I STILL only got one result!! But, since "Sherrill" could be spelled a million different ways, I am going to go back and use the wild card method with an *. This is what it would look like:
And the results are:
Ta-da! There is the marriage record I was hoping to find! Because Lee's last name was spelled differently, the system did not find it with the original spelling I had used. Now, I have the names of Bessie's parents AND Lee's parents too!
This wild card method can be used at FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com as well as many other online sites. Go and try it! Maybe you will find the record you've been searching for. Good Luck!!