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Indexes: How to Use Them

by Donna Przecha
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Tips on a Basic Tool
Many of the records you'll find in your family history research will be in the form of indexes, pointers to the actual records themselves. Let Donna Przecha show you how to extract the information you need and follow the trail to genealogical paydirt.

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 material.

Creating Indexes

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.

No Index

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.

Variant Spellings

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.

Public Records

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.

Secondary Indexes

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.

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