While Ancestry might be able to give you a few clues with its “Hint” system as to who your ancestors and other relatives are (or were), sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and dig through the documents yourself.  So, in this tutorial, we’re going to show you how to use the Ancestry internal search engine to look through their databases of historical records.


Just a heads-up that some of the services we’re reviewing here have affiliate partnerships with us, so we may earn a commission if you visit one of them and buy something. You can read more about how this works at

Just as a heads-up, most of the records databases cannot be searched without having a paid subscription (see our “How Much Does Ancestry Cost” article for a general list of which subscriptions offer you access to which databases).  However, there are certain records databases that can be searched by anyone for free, even if they don’t have an Ancestry account .  We will provide a link to those databases at the end of this tutorial.

To search on

  1. Go to in your web browser and log in.
  2. Move your mouse cursor over Search in the menu across the top.  Here, you will have the option to search through different classes of records; you can even search for someone in another user’s family tree, or a specific collection of records (i.e. a census, marriage index, military service log, and so on for a certain year or years, or from a certain country).


    Your search options will change slightly depending on your selection, but for right now, let’s just click Search All Records.

  3. There are quite a few different options on this screen, so we’ll go through them in two different sections.  The first section is the actual information criteria for the person whom you’re trying to find. The numbered captions below the screenshot will explain what the functions highlighted by the numbers in the screenshot do.

    1. Match All Terms Exactly – Click this check box to automatically set all relevant options to search for exact matches to information you enter. Click it again to reset this.

    2. First and Middle Names / Last Names – Type in the first and middle names (if you know them) of the person you’re looking for in the left box, and then their last name in the one on the right. Click the menu below each box to narrow your search to records with names that sound similar, are spelt similarly or mean similar things, that start with those letters (including initials), or exact matches.

    3. Life Events – Click the drop-down menu that says “Any Event” and select the type of life event that this person had that you want to search for (e.g. birth, marriage, death, military career, and so on).  Then click in the box that says “Year” and type in the year that the event happened. You can click the check box beside “Exact” to search for an event in that exact year, or click the drop-down menu beneath “+/-” to search for that event within one, two, five, or ten years of the year that you entered. 

    Finally, click in the box that says “Location” and type in where you think the event happened (Ancestry will give you suggestions that you can choose from). Click the menu below the box to choose whether or not to limit your search to events that happened exactly at this place.

    Click Add Life Events to add another life event as a search criterion, or click the trash can icon () beside an event to remove it from your search.

    4. Family Members – Click the drop-down menu that says “Choose…” and select the relationship of the person you’re using as a search criterion to the person you’re searching for.  Then click the boxes labelled “First Name” and “Last Name” and type in the relevant information (if you know it).  If you selected Father, Mother, or Spouse, you can also click the check boxes beside “Exact” below either box to search for an exact name match.

    Click Add Family Members to add another family member as a search criterion, or click the trash can icon () beside a family member to remove them from your search.

    5. Keyword – Type in sets of key words (with each set separated by a comma) that you think are related to that person, such as perhaps an organization or military division they were part of, or their occupation.  You can type quotation marks around a set of key words to search for that set of words in exactly that order, or click the check box beside “Exact” to do this for all sets of keywords that you entered.

    6. Gender and Race/Nationality – Click the drop-down menu labelled “Select” and choose whether you want to look for males or females.  You can also click in the box labelled “Race/Nationality” and type in a specific ethnicity or citizenship to search for; you can click the check box beside “Exact” to look for exact matches.

  4. The second section deals with what kinds of records you’re searching for, and what collections you’ll be searching in.  You can click the drop-down menu under “Collection Priority” and select a country or ethnicity to give greater weight to results from that collection.  You can also click the check box beside “Show Only Records From These Collections” to exclude records from all other collections from your results.

    You can also click the check boxes below this to decide if you want to search for a person in historical records, other users’ public family trees, stories and other publications (such as newspapers), and/or tagged photos and videos.

    When you’re ready, click Search.

  5. When you get to the results page, you can click on different points in the bars beside the search criteria categories to change how exact you want your results to match your search terms.  You can also click the drop-down menu beside “Collection” and search in the collection(s) for a different country or ethnicity.  Then click Update to fetch new search results accordingly.

    You can also click Edit Search to quickly change your search terms (without having to leave the page), or click New Search to clear all of your search criteria and start fresh.

  6. You can also click the Categories tab in the top-right corner to see a list of databases from which results were found.  Click on a category to see all databases within that category that returned records as results, or click a database to see all records in that database that match your search terms.

  7. Move your mouse cursor over the name of a record to view a preview of its details; click the name of it or click See More to view more information on that record.  You can also click View Image to see a digitized image of the record, if there is one available.


Those are the basics of how to search for people and historical records on!

How to search free databases

There are certain Ancestry databases on that anyone can search for free, even if they don’t have an account. 

Click here to search within the free databases on