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SAGS General Meeting October 6, 2024

Explore the new FamilySearch tool that makes old, handwritten documents easily accessible!

An example of how the tool can be used is found below.

For October's meeting we want to try something a little different from standard presentations.  We have found that our members gain real value from our occasional group discussions where we put the chairs in a circle rather than in rows.  The challenge is to see what you can find by using a new tool developed by the good folks at FamilySearch to go beyond the usual datasets available online.

Back at RootsTech in February, FamilySearch demonstrated this new tool, which is still under development, but usable. They've used artificial intelligence to transcribe old handwritten documents and make them fully text searchable, thus largely eliminating the need for painstaking indexing of the names contained in those documents. You can see a description of the tool here:

Do watch the video and scroll down to see a list of the digitized data sets. Items 1 and 3 should provide material of interest to most of us.  Try those and see what you can find!

Here's an example from my One-Name Study, in case it helps


It all started with an obituary in a local newspaper for a man named Howes who recently died in the Annapolis area of Anne Arundel County in Maryland. He was not already in my database.  So I traced the family back to a man named McCeney Howes born around 1827 in the same area. Looking at other records in my database for Howes families in that area it looked like his parents might be John Howes and Sarah Perry, but I could not find a link between them. (There is a lot of information on Maryland vital events online at but nothing is indexed. So, you have to know a lot about the event in advance of looking there.)

So, I searched for McCeney Howes using FamilySearch’s AI tool. Without even narrowing the search down using the buttons at the top of the results page, I found a property transaction in 1876 and two later items from a probate court when McCeney was the guardian for some children. Good, but not what I wanted.

Then I thought, well, maybe when John Howes had died (before the 1850 census) he had left a will and named his children in it. So I started searching for a John Howes in Anne Arundel county. I immediately found a November 1840 probate court record for guardianship of the children of a John Hows. The two older children, Robert and Elizabeth, became wards of their uncle and three younger ones: Zachariah, Thomas and John were assigned to another. The uncle was named as "administrator" of the deceased, meaning no will. Again, close but no cigar!

NOW, one of the key things to notice is that when you open a dataset (in this case: Anne Arundel Probate Records 1838-1842) every instance of the search terms (, in this case, "John" and "Hows") is highlighted in yellow. So, from the initial record I clicked on the subsequent page and immediately found the formal appointment of guardians, they having posted bond in the interim. Then I tabbed back only looking for the surname following "John" to find other steps in the court's process and eventually the first entry, where in May 1839 John's widow renounced her right to administer John's estate and asked the court to appoint her brother. Still no closer to McCeney.

Then I wondered whether one of Zachariah, Thomas or John had changed his name to McCeney. So I looked down the list of matches from my first search. Boy, did I get lucky?! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a later (1848) probate court record where the second guardian presented his accounts for the three children with a sign-off from McCeney Howes who had come of age. The guardian explained to the court that Zachariah and McCeney were the same person and he had used the wrong name in all prior court proceedings "by mistake". Bingo!  That one mention of the name change is probably not mentioned anywhere else.

So, not only did I solve the problem but thanks to the AI tool's transcription I have been able to copy and paste the text of the court records into our database. Because the computerized transcription isn't perfect, it takes a short while to correct it, but it's way quicker than typing from the original.

October's meeting
Do give it a try! See what you can find.  Come and share your findings with us.  If you didn't find anything, no matter.  Come and learn from the experience of others.  Maybe they will have tried something you didn't, or thought about a problem in a different way, or . . . .



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