An index is to genealogy what the wheel is to transportation: you can
get along without it, but if you have it you can cover a whole lot more
territory much more quickly.
You might look at the title and wonder what this article could be about.
An index is an index a list of names and topics in alphabetical
order...isn't it? Actually, it isn't. An index seems to be a simple tool,
one that genealogists frequently use. In looking at a lot of books at
one time, the temptation is to pick up a book, quickly scan the index
and put it aside if there are no relevant names. Or, reject it immediately
if there is no index. With such haste you may be overlooking valuable
With computer programs, and even word processing programs, creating an
index is so easy and effortless we don't give it much thought. Twenty
or fifty years ago it was not so easy. A person might spend years researching
and writing a family history and consider it well worth the time spent.
Creating an index could consume days and weeks of work which, unlike writing
and researching the original book, would not be rewarding or creative.
For a book to be indexed, it would have to be in final form with page
numbers. Then the indexer would have to go through each page and write
down the name and page number either on slips of paper, cards or lists.
Once all the names had been extracted, they would have to be put in order
and then rewritten for the index. Indexing simply wasn't worth the effort
for many authors who had already spent years on a family history book.
Unfortunately, even when a book is indexed, there is usually no explanation
of what has been indexed and how it is arranged. For the user to know
how valuable the book or index might be, it is necessary to understand
exactly what is or is not indexed and how it is arranged.
What is Indexed
It is helpful to know what to expect in the index. Sometimes only important
persons are included. In county histories, there may be biographies of
leading citizens (or those who paid a fee to be listed) while others mentioned
incidentally may not be indexed. Many books contain lists of taxpayers,
soldiers, and ships' passengers. While the index may mention the ship,
each person on board might not be indexed. An index may only cover people
or places or events or any combination. A family history may index women
under maiden names, married names, or both.
We expect one volume to have one index, but that is not always the case.
Sometimes there is an index for people and another for places. If multiple
issues of a journal are bound together, there may be an index for each
issue or one for the entire year. Conversely, multiple volumes may have
one index at the end of the entire set, or an index in each volume. Family
histories can have one index for that family and another for people with
different surnames. A book of marriages may have one index for grooms
and another for brides.
When a book has no index, look at the table of contents. Some older books
had such exhaustive tables of contents that they almost are as good as
an index. Each chapter is described in great detail. County histories
that are not indexed may have a list in the front of prominent people
whose biographies are included.
There are two methods of alphabetizing: one arranges words by the letters
and disregards any spaces; another follows the theory of "nothing
before something." The first would list Appen then Ap Roberts while
the "nothing before something" method would place all names
beginning Ap (Ap Roberts) following by a space first, then names beginning
with Ap (Appen) but having more letters. A name like O'Brien (being considered
O plus a space) may come at the beginning of the O's while others will
put it after Obert.
In a small index this isn't too important, but in a large index of vital
records for a city, it can be very significant, especially if some names
are considered O plus space while others aren't. If you are looking at
a book of Irish names, the O may be ignored entirely as the majority of
names can begin with O. Names like O'Brien or O'Malley, may be under the
B's and M's.
Mac and Mc names also can be treated differently. Some
will mix Mac and Mc into the appropriate place in the alphabet,
in which case you have to look in two places as you can never be sure
whether it was spelled Mac or Mc. Other systems will mix
Mac and Mc together and place them before all the other
names beginning with M. With foreign languages you need to understand
how non-English letters are treated. In Spanish an Ñ is a
separate letter from N, and Ll (double L) and Ch
are also grouped apart from L and C. You need to know whether
the umlaut, slash, accent or other mark creates a separate letter as far
as alphabetizing is concerned.
Fortunately, some attempt has often been made to provide some sort of
an index for public records such as probate, vital and land records. When
looking at land records, there are usually two indexes one for
the seller (the grantor), and another for the buyer (the grantee). You
need to be in the correct section depending on whether your ancestor was
buying or selling. If there are several owners of the property, such as
a family of grown children who inherited, only one person might be listed
in the index. It could be under the name of the oldest child which, in
the case of a married daughter, would be an entirely different surname.
Probate records are usually indexed under the name of the decedent. However,
if you are looking at a book of abstracts of wills rather than the index
to the wills themselves, it may contain names of everyone mentioned in
the will including the people receiving bequests and witnesses.
Some indexes may be broken down by month or quarter so you have to look
at several to cover a year. Within each month, it may be arranged only
by the first letter. New York death records for the late 1800s are arranged
by month, then by the first letter of the last name but beyond that are
not in strict alphabetical order.
Many of these older indexes are not in strict alphabetical order because
they were handwritten in bound volumes and were created as the year progressed.
As anyone who has tried to create a list on a sheet of paper knows, you
can't judge exactly where to put the Ch words in relation to the Co words.
You always end up with some squeezed in and others separated by lot of
white space. The record keepers did not attempt to keep an exact alphabet.
They had a page for each letter of the alphabet and listed the names as
they occurred. It might read Chambers, Cally, Cramer, Connor, Carson,
Chambers, etc. You have to look through the entire letter to find the
name in which you are interested.
The master index for New York marriages shows one film covering "1897-1899
N-Z." While you might expect the three years to be in one index or
one alphabet labeled 1897, another 1898, and a third 1899, this is not
the case. The records on this film are arranged first by initial letter.
You first come to a group in alphabetical order Ba-Bu, etc., then a second
set and then a third set. Then you come to three sets of names beginning
with C. It turns out that all the B's for 1897 are followed by the B's
for 1898, then 1899. There is no introduction to tell you this is the
case. If you only looked at the first group of B's the first time you
encountered it, you would have missed a record for 1898 or 1899.
Handwriting and Spelling
In handwritten records the letters may be hard to distinguish. An I
may look like a J. It is easy to confuse a W with an M
or a T with an F. If you are unsure of where you are in
an index, look at the next group of names. If the next group is G,
then you know the previous one is F and not T. If the name
you are looking for begins with a letter that sounds like another, C
and K, for example, you should consider looking under both letters.
A, D, and G can be mixed up when someone is transcribing
from the spoken word rather than written. This is especially prevalent
in census records. While an F can be mistaken for a T in
written records, it can be confused with an S when spoken.
There doesn't exist a name that can't be spelled at least two different
ways. Be sure to check all variant spellings Gardiner, Gardner,
Gardener, Gardinier and even Garner. If the index is strictly alphabetical,
each spelling will appear in a different place with a name like Gardman
in the middle.
Census indexes usually do not contain all names. The most common system
is to index only the heads of household as well as individuals in the
household with a different surname. The 1880 index only has the names
of heads of households where there were children under the age of 10 years.
The Soundex system has been explained in a previous
article on the census. Its purpose is to group similar sounding names
together, no matter how they are spelled. Double letters and vowels are
ignored and letters which sound alike such as M and N
are grouped together. Names are grouped under the first letter
followed by three numbers. However, in the index to New York City births
for the 1890s, names beginning with K and C were grouped
together. Within a Soundex code in the census, names will be further broken
down by first name. Where there are many names with the same Soundex and
same first name, they may be further divided according to some other criteria.
In one case, the third division was according to the place of birth,
so all John Smith (and all other names coded S530) will be in alphabetical
order according to the state or country of birth. These subgroups may
not be consistently followed and it is just as well not to rely too heavily
on this theory. The biggest pitfall with this index is after all of the
S530 John, it will begin S530 John A., S530 John B. You may not know the
person's middle name or, if you do, you don't know whether it was used
so you have to look at the end of the list also. Another pitfall of all
indexes is the people whose first names didn't get recorded at all so
they go to the beginning of the surnames or they are recorded under an
initial rather than full name, or even just a surname with no first name
or initial at all.
Sometimes volunteers will create a card index to a set of records such
as parish records. The Isle of Wight, England, for example, has a consolidated
index to all the parishes. It is alphabetical by surname, although some
names are grouped together, such as Love and Lowe. Within each surname,
they are subdivided by births, marriages and death with the events being
chronological within each group. After these three events there is a fourth
category which includes references to wills and leases. The index spans
several rolls of microfilm. There may be an explanation at the beginning,
but a user will probably only order the film with the surname of interest.
The arrangement is not obvious and not labeled. You have to figure it
out. It is logical to think that once you have reached the deaths, there
is no need to look further, but the fourth section is extremely valuable.
Once you find your name in an index, be sure you understand exactly what
it is referring to. One automatically assumes it will be a page number,
but often entries are given individual numbers and the reference may be
to that number rather than a page. References can also be to books, volumes,
lines, bundles, boxes, enumeration districts, sheets, etc. Few things
are as frustrating as having a specific reference but not being able to
figure out how it applies to the set of records you are researching.
An index is not as simple as you might think. Spend a little time studying
it to see how it is arranged and how it should be used. This may save
you quite a bit of time and frustration.