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


NEW!  Let this FREE tool do the work for you as you search on

U.S. county boundaries have changed over 17,600 times since America was settled in colonial times. Don’t sabotage your search for ancestors by not knowing the correct county for the historical years you are researching.

While searching on Ancestry, the free Historical U.S. Counties Auto-Checker extension for Google Chrome automatically checks that the county existed in the year you are searching, warns of boundary changes, and links to historical county lines on Google Maps for the place and years you are searching!

Install for free today and never let an ancestor fall of the map again!


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. place search showing misleading informationNavigating to'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  Pretty easy, just start typing "Denver, CO" into the top box below, and "1880" for the "As of 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 top 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:

Getting good results from Ancestry search requires knowing the correct Historical County based on randy majors Historical US Counties on Google Maps tool

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)

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!

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! 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!

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, 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.

User-suggested Enhancements to AncestorSearch: Google Custom Search

With the popularity of my AncestorSearch using Google Custom Search tool (as of July 2019, over 115,000 hits and climbing), I was overdue in making some enhancements suggested by users of the tool.

If you haven't used it lately, as a reminder, AncestorSearch "builds a better, genealogy-specific Google search using terms you fill into blanks," to quote Family Tree Magazine.  (Thank you once again Family Tree Magazine for the great honor of listing AncestorSearch and my Historical Maps tools in your ranking of the Top 101 Best Websites for Genealogy in 2016!)

The two key enhancements are highlighted in the screenshot below.

First, you can now filter on Marriages, Births and Deaths (or all three!) by checking the corresponding boxes.

Finally, I've also made some performance improvements which should make the tool a bit quicker and more responsive to use.

Be sure and read the "QUICK TIPS" shown in the green box on the AncestorSearch page.  But to make things easier, here's a summary of the tips:

- Type in as many search criteria as you want. Use of alternate names, a second person, place, or year are all optional.
- You can also optionally filter on marriages, births, and deaths.
- Check the "Show sample of search results as I type" checkbox to quickly test alternate name spellings, locations, etc to see how they may impact your search results.
- Click the "Run Full Google Search" button to run your search. Search results appear in a new tab; close that new tab to come back and refine your search.
- Save time by using shortcut keys: Use the Tab key to move to the next field, and press the Enter key to run the full search.
- PRO-TIP: After clicking the "Run Full Google Search" button, you can edit the search string on the Google Search page that appears (this is useful for adding other Google advanced search strings to your search, such as excluding pages that contain certain words by using the "-" (minus) sign).

I hope these enhancements make the tool more useful for you, and as always I welcome your suggestions and ideas in the Comments section below.

A couple of enhancements to the Historical U.S. County Boundary Maps tool -- and a thank you!

I've recently made a couple of enhancements to the Historical U.S. County Boundary Maps tool that make it easier to read and see the results of the search (see screenshot below). Thank you, The Family Nexus, for your article that had very nice things to say about the tool, and also made me aware that the text was a tad small.

Another enhancement is the addition of a little "maximize" button above the "Go!" button that expands the map window for much easier viewing (see the little square in the top right of the above screenshot).

Finally, one last enhancement is the option just above the map for "Show Research Locations" that shows you the courthouses, cemeteries, churches and libraries on the map -- all places for potential ancestry research in your area of interest.  (Note:  use this option once you're zoomed in pretty tight on an area, as it won't do much good if you're looking at the whole nation or even a state.)  Once you've checked the box and the icons have displayed on the map, you can click each icon on the map to see the name, address, and website of each library, courthouse, or church.  And in the case of cemeteries, there's also a link directly to its Find A Grave listing.

Best Tech Tools for Genealogy in 2016
Finally, I want to give a heartfelt (if belated) thank you to Family Tree Magazine for the great honor of highlighting my Historical Maps and AncestorSearch tools in your ranking of the Top 101 Best Websites for Genealogy in 2016!

From their Best Tech Tools for Genealogy in 2016 article, "This lively blog stands out for a pair of cool tools: One makes it easy to compare past and present locations in the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries; the other builds a better, genealogy-specific Google search using terms you fill into blanks."

As always, comments and ideas on how to further improve the tools are welcome.