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Think Like an Indexer

It's no wonder some of our ancestors are so difficult to find. If I would have known that Asa Brown's name in the 1850 census would be indexed as Asa Prowse (Ancestry's index) or Asa Preuss (FamilySearch's index) he would have been easy to find. To have greatest success in finding our indexed ancestors, we must think like indexers.


Here are a couple of tips that have been helpful in my research.

Tip 1 - Years ago, before anything was online, I found this family living in Neshannock, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Because of how they were indexed, it was difficult finding this record in any online database. I eventually located them by searching for just the given name of one of their children. I searched for William because I figured most indexers can decipher that name. I combined the given name with his age of 9 and added Lawrence County to the search parameters. Try different combinations.

Tip 2 - Correct the index if you can. If you're using the Ancestry index, when you are looking at the actual image, click on the View All link in the upper left. This should split the screen, showing you the indexed entries. Then, hover your mouse in the far lower right (just above the View Updates button) and click on the Add Update button. Here you can add alternate names, which will then be included in the index so future researchers can more easily locate the same person.

Tip 3 - Do some indexing. Through my indexing efforts I've become a better researcher. It helps me think like an indexer. Now when I see a "J" I know that it can easily be interpreted as an "I". An "L" and an "S" are nearly identical as well. In fact, in Kip Sperry's Reading Early American Handwriting, he explains potential problems and solutions with every letter of the alphabet. Here's his example for the letter F:

Two small ff(s) were used to form a modern capital F. A small f or backward lower case f may look like an s. A capital F may be confused with a capital H.

If you are not yet familiar with the long s you can easily mistake it for an f as is the case with the name of this township in the 1840 census:


Many compiled records have published this name as "Scrubgrafs" when it should be Scrubgrass. My semester-long paleography class as part of my genealogy degree was well worth it. At the beginning of the class I could not read anything our professor presented, but by the end, with the tips and techniques I learned from Kip Sperry, I could easily read the same documents. I strongly recommend that you read his book.

Tip 4 - Be creative! Try to think like the indexer and the enumerator. I don't think the enumerator double-checked that his spelling was correct for every name in the household. Try to think of all the surname variants and spellings. When you've exhausted your own creativity, use the three online tools I wrote about in Three Free Resources to Find Surname Variations.

Tip 5 - Use Legacy's Soundex tool. In Legacy, go to Tools > Soundex Calculator. Fill in the surname and click on the Search Name List button. This will give you a list of all surnames that share the same soundex code, so you might locate other variations of the same name.


Have you located someone in an online index where the name was terribly transcribed? What techniques did you use to locate your ancestor?


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I've had good luck with using the given name of a family member plus the place AND also narrowing the search to a specific year. This works on Ancestry & FamilySearch. Many times Wikipedia will show the location of nearby towns and counties where you are seeking ancestors and I've substituted a variety of locations for the search. Small children are more likely to have the correct birth year in the census. Searching an individual marriage database using only the surnames of the groom and the bride has helped. If that is unproductive, search for each surname separately. Be sure to search for the bride with her married name and nickname. Sometimes a transcribed marriage database on Ancestry may also be found on FamilySearch showing the original document. FamilySearch more quickly provides results with variations in the spelling.

I recall before census and materials were on the internet, of sitting hours in the library at the microfilm machine going through the census page by page. I would compare children's ages and names and often follow a collartal line to find my ancestor. It was very time consuming but a labor of love. At that time the index was often in a big book and you were lucky if the library had the state index you needed. Often the index was wrong or did not list your ancestor. I'll take any indexing I can use.

Before the indexes were in (kinda like the 1940 census records, now), I had a general idea where someone was, and scanned the images for their name. Instead of focusing on correct spelling or any such foolishness, I looked for the "pattern" to the letters of a last name - tall, short, short, tall, tall, short, etc. Found quite a few of them, no matter how they were spelled - and many were spelled quite badly! - that way.

I was reading your article "Think Like an Indexer" and noticed something that I have learned in my research in the census. The small "f" cam sometimes denote a double letter, the "f" is placed in front of the letter that is to be 'doubled'. This is shown in your example of "Scrubgrafs" compared to "Scrubgrass". The "f" here suggests to me that it is read as "ss". I have seen this in the name Hobb, written in the census as Hofb; and Spriggs written as Sprifgs. Sure had me confused until a library assistant explained it to me.

Great article, but one big problem I see is that many sites refuse to admit their indexers could be wrong. Two years ago, I tried to report errors to FamilySearch concerning errors in the first names of one of great-great-grandparent's family. I knew for certain the names I had were correct because I got them from my grandparents who knew the individual aunts and uncles personally. I was basically told thanks but maybe some day you can add in alternative names, but for now we are going with our indexers. Your article clearly demonstrates that errors are easy to make when indexing. The Census I wrote in about was no older then 1900, and still the handwriting was misread. I may not have the time to help create an index, but I can help correct the more modern records (1900+) when based on personal knowledge if the various sites allow.

It should have been obvious to the indexer that
the first letter on Asa's last name was a B
but the ending is a more difficult situation.

I was at a loss to find my parents, and me, on the 1930 Census. Tried everything. Finally found them by entering a friends name, who lived on the next block. Using their name as a start, I went through page after page, and finally found our family name...misspelled. How I wish I had known about using the Soundex as a tool to find them It would have saved hours of work.

Soundex plus children's given names gave me Callahan family recorded as Kielleham in 1870 census.

What happened to Matthew Combs's software - Surname Suggestion List? The last info I can find is that there is a Version 5 but can not find it to download.

Tip 2 - Correct the index if you can. If you're using the Ancestry index, when you are looking at the actual image, click on the View All link in the upper left. This should split the screen, showing you the indexed entries. Then, hover your mouse in the far lower right (just above the View Updates button) and click on the Add Update button. Here you can add alternate names, which will then be included in the index so future researchers can more easily locate the same person.

>>use "standard viewer"
>>"Add Update" is in the lower LEFT next to the information for the person you searched for
>>"View Updates" wasn't there---because no updates?

Thanks for a great article, Geoff!

Thank you for the article and the suggestions for finding some of my ancestors in Ancestry. I have certainly found more information online. I am going to try Tip 2. I wondered if there was any way to correct some of the indexes that I know are incorrect.

As indexers we are told to "type what we see" in most cases. This can be very frustrating when the document creator was wrong! In the 1940 census we are allowed to spell cities, counties, and states correctly, but names are still a problem. Often the first letter of the surname has been "checked" through, obscuring it substantially. The 1940 seems to have more of these statistical marks than previous censuses.

Many who have not indexed may be unaware that with FamilySearch Indexing each page is indexed by two different indexers. After that, results which differ are reviewed by an arbitrator who can choose one version or the other, or even supply a third version. Experienced indexers are invited to become arbitrators, and all arbitrators are expected to continue indexing batches themselves, which assures that they continue improving their indexing skills.

I have found the Polish name Gawricki indexed as Gariotali or some such spelling (I forget where). I also use the first name if it is uncommon and the "pattern" or shape of the letters when written in cursive form to help when a name doesn't turn up right away. Sometimes the spouse's name appears first or the children get mixed up. On occasion even try the obvious surname-as-firstname trick.

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