The first of the five elements of the Board for Certification of Genealogist's Genealogical Proof Standard is to conduct a reasonably exhaustive search. The reasons why we want to do this are:
- Assumes examination of a wide range of high quality sources
- Minimizes the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion
So you've looked for all the stuff you can find on Ancestry.com and you're stuck. Now what? What else can the long-distance genealogist do?
I'd like to post a caution about your assessment of Ancestry.com's database as "extensive". There's a poster which was created by the California Genealogical Society & Library called Tip of the Iceberg -- showing the Internet resources sticking up out of the water, and the vast expanse of records from courthouses, libraries, and archives underneath. One rule of thumb that is mentioned in webinars when this graphic is displayed is that perhaps 10% of the records we would like to see are online -- and if you restrict yourself to Ancestry only, that percentage is even smaller.
That being said -- one of the basic principles of planning for a research trip which I've heard from Judy G. Russell and other certified genealogists is that it makes sense to first identify and examine all the records that you can find online before you go, so that when you do get to your distant archive, library, or courthouse, you won't spend time looking up the records you could have seen at home, unless there's a reason you need to see the originals (e.g. if you can't read the microfilmed image).
Step Zero: Look for maps. One of the presentations from the 2015 Genealogy Jamboree (a big conference given every year by the Southern California Genealogy Society) was Jay Fonkert's 5 Steps for Researching in a New Location. Fonkert's five topics/tasks which need to be reviewed for each new location you research are:
- Discover the Records
- Find Other Researchers
Establishing the lay of the land will ground all the other searches that you make afterwards. For a quick example of why this is necessary, see the Wikipedia article for Springfield. It's far easier than people realize to match on both a name and place when you searching for records by name if one or the other, or both, are common names.
Wikipedia has an article for a modern-day Springwater, New York which is within Livingston County, not Washington County, so one avenue to explore might be to ask how many candidates for the town named Springwater exist in New York State. Livingston and Washington Counties are across the state from each other, so determining you're in the right place is really important.
If you discover a place name which doesn't show up on modern maps, the USGS's Geographic Names Information Service (GNIS) has a lookup service which will give the number of the topological map showing the historical place, and the Newberry Library's Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help with determining what jurisdictions might have been in existence at the time any given record was created.
Considering the historical context is also important because your starting-point is a Civil War-era record. There are three different soldiers named Reuben Thompson from New York in the National Park Service's Soldiers and Sailors database. For all the suggestions below about finding records in a particular place, the same techniques can be used to find records by a historical subject.
Step one: before you branch out from Ancestry itself, are you making the most effective use of Ancestry's collections that you can? These are some of the videos I've found to be helpful from Crista Cowan's Barefoot Genealogist sessions, which are on Ancestry's YouTube Channel under the playlist Ancestry.com Desktop Education Series:
- Smarter Searching: Look for Records Not People shifts our focus away from simply searching for name matches and understanding we are looking for records -- and how the search terms we use affect the results we get
- Some Genealogy Records Have No Names (this one was a real eye-opener for me) talks about 'hidden' records in collections that have no names associated with them
- Stop Searching, Start Browsing encourages us to look at the online images the old-school way -- so that we can make use of records which are badly indexed or not indexed at all.
- Crista's video on creating Genealogy Source Checklists is extremely useful as a pointer to looking for record groups you may have overlooked, and on how to keep track of what you have found for each person.
Other resources on Ancestry which can be overlooked are their State Research Guides, which include pointers to resources both on and off Ancestry, and the wiki, which incorporates material from Ancestry's print references The Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources and The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy.
Step two: make use of the resources of FamilySearch.org. Many of the FamilySearch collections are being mirrored on Ancestry.com, but using FamilySearch directly might give you a better understanding of what you're seeing (as well as a chance to discover all the resources there which Ancestry doesn't have). If you haven't explored yet, look at both the FamilySearch Catalog, which lists resources both online and offline, and the FamilySearch Research Wiki, which started out with the material contained in their printed Research Outlines, and has grown from there.
Like Ancestry, Family Search offers video guidance on how to use their resources, and online classes can be found via the Wiki page Online Webinars from the United States/Canada Research Team and from their Learning Center.
The basic principle is to start with a wide search and then narrow down the results to focus in on what you want. For Records, the Catalog, and the Wiki, search first for the State, then the County, then the individual place, and explore the resources available at each level. The Wiki pages for the states have pointers to the smaller jurisdictions within. The wiki pages also have pointers to the individual collections of historical records which are available online. To search the Catalog, you enter the place name with the largest jurisdiction first -- each set of results has a box at the top with Places within to point you to the smaller jurisdiction. The individual detail page for a specific collection will have a red banner with a link to jump from the catalog to searching the actual records. You can also search for a place by name by going to the main page at FamilySearch.org, choosing Search > Records, and by clicking on the map, or by choosing the link Browse All Published Collections beneath the search box.
Step three: There is a huge amount of material which has been placed online by local genealogists -- if you haven't already done so, explore RootsWeb (especially the mailing list archives for particular locales and surnames) USGenWeb, and the links to other resources on sites like Cyndi's List and Linkpendium. Also, some of the most valuable hints to further research I've found have been in blog posts from people writing about the same geographical area I was working in. A blogger may not be working with the same surnames you are, but seeing what records they found and how they made use of them in their own work can be key to getting a breakthrough. The local genealogical society may be able to help you find other case studies, or make you aware of who else is working in your area.
Examining case studies can be valuable even when the study shown is from a different geographical area than the one you are searching in, simply because you can see how a professional genealogist brings all the pieces together as a whole during the research process. Case studies from the same time period might discuss Federal laws that could help with your question.
Step four: Finding more local resources. Many archives, state libraries, local libraries, local historical societies, and local genealogy societies have research guides about their own holdings, and topic guides on how to make use of those records and materials. These guides can be as modest as a downloadble PDF, or as massive as the guide which was recently published by The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B), the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer, which weighs in at 856 pages. Not all of us can afford to purchase big guides like this, so if this isn't something you must have on your bookshelf, you can use WorldCat.org to look for it in a library or at a genealogical society near you. But even a thorough guidebook can't have everything, so wherever you explore online, look for guides and background material as well as records. Google Books, Google Scholar, The Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, and JSTOR.org are other good places to search.
Other suggestions can be found in the answers to the question How can I determine what records are available in a particular locale?