Miryelle Resek | Jul 14, 2017

Following the Leaf | Researching Ancestors on Ancestry

Ancestry currently has 19 billion historic records indexed on their website, and 2 million records are added almost every day. With so many records, it can be a little confusing to sort through everything!

Crista Cowan talked in her RootsTech 2017 presentation about three different ways you can “follow the leaf” on Ancestry to make researching your ancestors easier.


Cowen, who has worked for Ancestry for 13 years, says that the leaf system, or Hints, was designed to help people “catch some of their low-hanging fruit.”

How it Works

Ancestry has a room full of computer servers that are designated as “hint servers.” These machines constantly look through what you’ve put in your family tree and compare it with what Ancestry has on their records.

As the hint servers begin matching the information you’ve entered with the records they have, they send notifications letting you know about other similarities within the system, and you will receive a leaf hint.

As you work with those leaf hints, you have the option to ignore them or save them, keeping in mind the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Things to Note

It’s important to remember that while you might not always get a leaf hint, that doesn’t mean that your ancestor isn’t in the system. There are almost 33,000 databases of records on Ancestry, and the hint servers look through only the most popular databases to find a match.

Another thing to note with Hints is that sometimes the records themselves may have incorrect information about your ancestor. For example, if your ancestor wasn’t home when a census worker was getting information, a neighbor could have mistakenly given the worker the wrong information regarding where and when your ancestor was born.

Suggested Records

When you’re scrolling through the records available on Ancestry, Suggested Records are listed with links on the right side.

How it Works

Suggested Records are files attached to the records you’re searching. These files stay connected to records, unlike leaf hints, which are attached to your family members and which you can dismiss.

Cowen says, “Suggested Records are generated by you. As you attach things to trees, we’re saying, well, these other three records got attached to that same person. Maybe you want to go look at them.”

Like Hints, Suggested Records still need to be reviewed to ensure that a particular record really does belong with your ancestor.

Things to Note

When you have a long list of Suggested Records to compare, Cowen recommends opening up each of the different records in different tabs.

To do this, right click each suggestion, and select the option to open that link in a new tab. Once you have all of the suggested records open in their own tabs, Cowen suggests organizing the tabs so that the records are in chronological order. You can then go through them one at a time.

Cowen explains that once she decides which records contain her ancestor’s information, she can save those records one at a time so they’re attached to her ancestor’s tree. She then closes each of the tabs and ends up where she was originally, with the comfort of knowing that she’s worked with each of the records that were suggested.

Card Catalog

With 19 billion historical records, how do you make things seem manageable to a beginner? Hints and Suggested Records were solutions that Ancestry came up with. But what do you use once you’ve explored those options and are ready to take the next step? Cowen suggests using her “favorite resource on the entire Ancestry.com website”: the Card Catalog.

How it Works

The Card Catalog helps users see what records exist online at Ancestry. You can search all of the records and organize them via category-based forms ranging from surnames to books.

Once you’ve decided what to search for, Ancestry will show you what records match that particular search. Sometimes your results will provide a manageable amount of records to scroll through, and other times you’ll have to sort through thousands of results.

When you have too many results, use the tools on the left side of the screen to filter your results with the following categories:

  • Collections (birth, marriage, death records)
  • Location (if your original search was a location, this will narrow the results)
  • Date (search by century or decade)

Things to Note

When you click Search All Collections, you’ll get a very basic search form. Cowen says, “The easiest way [to use the Card Catalog] is to search by state or country” and then to filter your results from there.

The Card Catalog allows you to play around with finding records, giving you the opportunity to feel more comfortable with Ancestry and see what’s there.

As Cowen says, “We need to play around with the records and understand what's available before we dive into searching for the person. So I play around with the Card Catalog all the time just to see what exists. On some occasions, you can also put in the name of a specific person or a family.”

The better you understand how to navigate the Card Catalog records, the more likely you’ll find your ancestor because you’ll have a better idea of where to look.

What are some ways you’re “following the leaf” on Ancestry? Tweet @RootsTechConf and let us know!

Miryelle Resek

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