06 March 2018

How you may be sabotaging your search for ancestors...and how to fix it!

OK, let's say you're searching in the 1880 United States Federal Census for an ancestor that you know lived in Denver, Colorado at that time.  The ancestor's name is James Smith and you think he was born sometime around 1850.

Navigating to Ancestry.com's 1880 Federal Census search page, you type the above information into the
search form, as shown at right.  As you start typing "Denver" into the "Lived in" box, Ancestry very kindly offers you suggestions.

You think to yourself, "Why thank you, I'll choose the first option, 'Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA'.  Sounds about right."

You click Search and get the results shown below:

7,611 search results!  Ouch.  And that's with the "Exact" boxes checked next to the First and Last Names as shown above.

So you think, "Hmm, time to edit my search and check some more 'Exact' boxes so I can narrow down my search results."  Since you know your ancestor lived in Denver, you check the "Exact to this place" box, as shown at right.  Assuming this should give you what you're looking for, you click Search.

This masterpiece result is what you get in return:

"Wait, how in the world could there be ZERO results?!", you fume.  "And for a common name like James Smith??"

As you're scratching your head and thinking about engaging Ancestry in a Twitter-storm, you remember something about changing county boundaries that some blogger named Randy Majors seems to drone on about.  You think, "Could that be relevant in this case?  I doubt it because I live in Denver and I know that Denver is in Denver County." 

But something tells you to check anyway.  You go to the free Historical U.S. County Boundary Maps tool found at randymajors.com/p/maps.html.  Pretty easy, just type "Denver, CO" into the first box below, and "1880" for the year/date and click "Go!"  This is what you see:

"Eureka!", you exclaim.  Or actually "Arapahoe!", since that's the county Denver was a part of in 1880, according to the highlighted box at the bottom of the map.  (Learn more about where this information comes from below the map here.)

Armed with this invaluable sliver of wisdom, you return to the trusty Ancestry 1880 Census search form and edit your search.

This time, you start typing "Denver, Arap..." into the "Lived In" box (and you may or may not get an auto-complete suggestion).  Either way, you stubbornly type the whole thing:  "Denver, Arapahoe County, Colorado, USA" and then check the "Exact to this place" box again, as shown here:

You click Search and hold your breath.

But not for too long, as Ancestry quickly returns a truly beautifully manageable quantity of 10 search results:

Happily finding the James Smith you were looking for, you begin your next search: Robert Johnson, who lived in what is now Chicago in around 1830.  That's Cook County, right?  Ah, but now you can't be fooled!

And lest you think this is a limitation of Ancestry's search, try the same thing at FamilySearch and you will get the same ZERO results for a James Smith born around 1850 if you type "Denver, Denver, Colorado" into the Residence Place box, and you will get around 10 results if you type "Denver, Arapahoe, Colorado".

Technical side-note:  My advice about typing the full place name (with the correct county) in the form "Denver, Arapahoe, Colorado, USA" applies across ALL Search forms, whether you do a global search across the entire Ancestry website or a search within a specific Collection.  So even searching within the 1880 US Federal Census, "Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA" will automatically appear as you start typing "Denver" -- even though Arapahoe County was the only county in which Denver, Colorado existed in 1880. 

So in conclusion, is it necessary to know the correct county name for the place and date you are searching?  Asked and answered (hopefully!) :)

Should you check the historical County information every single time you search?  You probably should if it's the first time you're searching in that area in a given year.  But at a minimum, my suggestion is this:

If you check an "Exact" location box when searching and get either ZERO or other very erratic results, it could very well be that you're looking in the wrong county.  And now you know how to quickly find the right county!  Enjoy!

(And be sure to read the "Quick Tips for Using this Tool" just below the map)

04 March 2018

For Your Maximum Viewing Pleasure

Yesterday, I released one of the most frequently requested features for the Historical U.S. County Boundary Maps tool (as a reminder, this tool lets you view on a Google Map the county boundaries as of any HISTORICAL date or year for ANY U.S. location!).

The new functionality is simple but very useful:  the ability to work with a much larger map in an immersive full screen experience!  (Also, keep reading to learn of a couple more enhancements.)

To go into fullscreen view, just hit the button in the upper right corner of the map, highlighted in red below.  You will see a much larger map window, as shown in the bottom image below!  It's difficult to show the difference in size in a blog post of a limited width, so the images below are captured at the same scale for comparison.

You'll really see the difference when you display the county boundaries and zoom in on the map, as shown below.  And you can continue to work with the map, change dates, locations, etc. while remaining in fullscreen mode.  When you're done, just hit the upper right button again or hit the Esc key to get out of fullscreen view.  (By the way, sorry, but Google Maps does not support full screen functionality on iOS, so the fullscreen functionality will be best leveraged on your desktop or laptop computer.)

Also new: the information about the county boundary change from the Newberry Library's Atlas of Historical County Boundaries is now shown at the bottom of the map, highlighted in red below.  This includes details on the latest boundary change as of the date you typed, and reference to the particular statute that triggered the boundary change.

Finally, the "Show Research Locations" option is now at the bottom of the map (shown at the bottom of the highlighted red box above), and includes many more options you can overlay on the map.  These are places you can visit to potentially do more research or find more records for your ancestors.  Here's the full listing:
Then, click the icons that appear on the map, as they will link you to more information about the place, including Find A Grave listings for cemeteries!

Also, be sure and read the updated Quick Tips underneath the map, also shown below for your convenience:

I hope you find these improvements useful!  Please leave comments below if you have any questions, issues or ideas for future improvements!

25 May 2017

Free online versions of my recent Family Tree Magazine articles

In my last post, I mentioned my recent articles I wrote for Family Tree Magazine.  There are now slightly modified free versions of the articles available on their website.

The "Moving Targets" article is recast as "How to Use Old Maps to Find Missing Ancestors", and my case study is found as "How to Use Old Maps & City Directories to Research House History".

I hope you enjoy the articles!

25 April 2017

randymajors.com website and I featured in Family Tree Magazine

Many thanks to Family Tree Magazine for featuring me in their May/June 2017 "5 Questions" Q&A column, part of their regular "Genealogy Insider" section.  In other news: Who knew I was an insider? :)

It was also great fun co-authoring an article with Sunny Jane Morton in the same issue of the magazine.  Previewed on the cover as "4 Ways to Find Ancestors with Old Maps", the 8-page feature article beginning on page 48 is called "Moving Targets" and provides genealogy research suggestions for what to do when the ancestor you are researching apparently falls off the map.

The article also includes a case study that I wrote that incorporates all of the research suggestions into one narrative.

The article isn't posted online, but the May/June 2017 Family Tree Magazine issue can be purchased or downloaded here.  (No, I don't receive proceeds from the sales.)  I hope you find some useful ideas in the article!

11 December 2016

History buffs: With one click, see a timeline of every county, state and country the spot where you're standing has ever been a part of.

Just type in your address or city in the box at www.randymajors.com/p/maps.html, type a year as late as 2000, then click Go! County boundaries as of your chosen year will appear.  (Sorry for those outside the United States -- this only works for U.S. locations)

Now, find the check box just below the map, and click it.

Sit back and travel back in time through every county, state, territory and country your red marker location ( ) has been a part of!  See the example below showing Durango, Colorado -- part of La Plata County, Colorado today -- all the way back to when it was part of Mexico in 1804!

NEW: You can also set the update interval that controls how quickly the map and list changes as you go back in time.

On a practical note, if you do historical or genealogy research, it's important to know what county your place of interest was part of as of a given point in time.  For example, if your location was part of a different county than what it is present day, that other county courthouse just may have the record you're looking for.