Worth a Thousand Words: How to Find and Use Image-Only Collections on FamilySearch


By Katy Barnes

If you’ve entered your family names into a genealogy database like FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com and didn’t find the answer you were seeking, don’t give up hope! Did you know there are millions of pages of digitized records online at FamilySearch.org that don’t show up when you conduct a general search?

FamilySearch runs a massive crowdsourced indexing program where volunteers like you or me can spend time transcribing records. These transcriptions can then be queried by the website’s search engines, and that process is how you are able to locate an image by searching for a name. These indexing projects are organized by record type, time period, and language.

Some collections are larger than others, and some are more difficult to index or use. The easiest records for volunteers to index are censuses, draft cards, death certificates, and other similar records that were made on pre-printed forms because the information contained in them is consistent and standardized. But what about wills, estate files, court minutes, or deeds? These were often written in narrative or paragraph form and can take much longer to read through, understand, and then extract the necessary information and enter it in a standard way.

The thing is, answers to brick wall problems often lie in records that are not indexed. Probate, land, and tax records are invaluable for the answers they can provide in pre-1850 American research. What if you can’t prove a relationship between a daughter and a father? A will could name the daughter as an heir to the father’s estate and give an estimated death date for the father in an era before death certificates were used. Are  you trying to identify parents or potential siblings of your landowning ancestor? Check the deeds. People often conducted transactions with family members, in-laws, and close friends. Some even state the relationships between the parties directly.

No thorough genealogical search is complete without referencing these record types. In fact, the solution to your brick wall problem may be hiding in plain sight, just waiting for you to discover the right record.

There are still many records sets that have been digitized but not indexed. However, just because the records are not indexed and not searchable by name does not mean they are not available from the comfort of your own home. You just have to know how to find them. In the past, most of these complex records were available only at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or onsite at the local archives or courthouse. While some still are in local archives and courthouses, a large number of states, particularly in the South, now have them digitized and online ready for you to browse.

Here’s how to find these records online:

  1. Go to FamilySearch.org and click Search in the top toolbar.
  2. Select Records from the drop-down menu that appears.
  3. Hover over the map of the United States on the right-hand side, and select the state where the record was made. For the sake of the example, we chose Georgia. You will now be taken to a page titled “Georgia Indexed Historical Records.”
  4. Scroll to the section titled “Georgia Image Only Historical Records.” These are all the collections that are not indexed but can still be searched manually.
  5. Select the records of your choice. They are organized by type: censuses, immigration and naturalization, military, probate/court, and others.
  6. Click Browse and you’ll be taken one of two places—first, you may be taken directly to the record set, especially if it is a smaller record set. But you may be taken to a second screen that provides some divisions for the record set, called “waypoints.” For our example, we’ll choose the database “Georgia, Andersonville Prison Records, 1862–1865.” This collection is further divided into “Claims and Reports,” “Deaths and Burials,” “Departures,” and “Hospital.”

    Once you choose your desired sub-set, for example “Deaths and Burials,” you may be taken directly to the record set, or you may be given the option to narrow your search even further:

    Looking at records this way is just like looking at the microfilm at the Family History Library. If you chose “Vol. 28 Prisoner Burial Index, 1864-1865” from the choices above, you could look for your ancestor’s entry and then access the appropriate digitized volume.

    Each division is a waypoint, and by making note of these waypoints, you can more easily find your way back to the record you were using.

Going through these image-only collections can admittedly be quite time-consuming, since it requires going page-by-page through large books. It can also often require already having a general idea of when an event occurred, or where a person was living, but keep an eye out for time-saving helps. Some records have an alphabetical or chronological index within the first few pages of the collection, which created by the clerk who put the book together. Though not yet searchable by computer, you can quickly scan the index yourself for the name of the ancestor in question.
As with most things in life, the greatest rewards come as a result of hard work and persistence. Give records like this a try—you just might solve a decades-long family mystery!

Katy Barnes works for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit the LegacyTree website.


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