United States Index Systems

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An index is a systematic guide, in list form, with references to the page where each item is located. There are many ways to index. They might be arranged alphabetically, by volume, or by time period. Some indexing systems are so complex that they require guides, keys, or tables to decipher. Some of the more common indexing systems for records in the United States are described below.

Alphabetical Indexes

Some indexes might be strictly alphabetical. However, care must be taken as alphabetizing errors can exist.An example is a Mecklenburg, North Carolina will index. See "North Carolina, Probate Records, 1735-1970," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1-19424-14940-14?cc=1867501&wc=10922148 : accessed 02 Jan 2014), Mecklenburg > Wills Index, 1682-1905 > image 11 of 41.

Most alphbetical indexes are organized using only the initial letter of the surname, with entries given in chronological order.An example can be found in Allegany County, Maryland will records. In the example, a tabbed index page is given for each pair of alphabetical letters. The first letter of the pair is given on the left page and the second on the right page. See "Maryland, Register of Wills Books, 1629-1999," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1951-24609-4000-42?cc=1803986&wc=M97S-WJJ:n1758878272 : accessed 02 Jan 2014), Allegany > Wills 1790-1850 vol A > image 10 of 379.

Burr Record Index

Entries are divided into subgroups under each letter of the alphabet. Surnames that begin with the letter J would appear under the following headings: JAA-JAC, JAE-JAL, JAM-JAP, JAQ-JAY, JE, JI, JOA-JOG, JOH-JOM, JON-JOP, JOR-JOY, JU, JY.

For an example, see "Maryland, Register of Wills Books, 1629-1999," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1971-29677-4925-82 : accessed 31 Dec 2013), Talbot > Administration account index (Burr's record index) 1777-1860 vol CRW 1777 > image 20 of 218.

Campbell Index

Names are arranged alphabetically by initial letter of the given name along with the initial letter of the surname. The names Adam Clyde, Alice Crowther, and Andrew Czerny would all appear on the same page in chronological order. A key in front of the index provides the page number for the AC entries.

For an example of a Campbell Index guide sheet at the front of the index, see "Maryland, Register of Wills Books, 1629-1999," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1951-31545-514-48 : accessed 01 Jan 2014), Montgomery > General docket index 1930-1953 vol HGC, 1, no 1451-8752 > image 21 of 509.

For an example of a Campbell Index entry sheet, see "Maryland, Register of Wills Books, 1629-1999," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1971-31544-33393-35 : accessed 01 Jan 2014), Montgomery > General docket index 1930-1953 vol HGC, 1, no 1451-8752 > image 222 of 509.

Cott System Indexes

The Cott Index Company has many indexing systems, but they can be grouped into several groups:

Cott Key Table at Top of Page

A key table appears at the top of every page.

An example from New York probate records indexes by the first two letters of the surname. See "New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-24580-34900-84?cc=1920234&wc=M9S9-GQY:73378958 : accessed 01 Jan 2014), Oswego > Will index 1932-1956 A-Z > image 7 of 349.

An example from Minnesota land records indexes by the first letter of the surname and the first letter of the given name. See "Minnesota, Itasca County Land Records, 1872-1930," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-29794-8980-86?cc=2030516&wc=M9QB-8WW:n677125267 : accessed 01 Jan 2014), Itasca > General index grantee 1911-1913 vol 12 > image 2 of 313.

Cottco Universal

The alphabet is divided into units. A unit starts with a tab sheet showing the letter or the part of a letter contained in the unit. The unit next contains a sub-index sheet with page references for every combination of letters or commonly occurring surnames. The unit then contains the referenced pages. It is important to note that pages for commonly occuring surnames are allocated after the pages for letter combminations. This means that they occur out of alphabetical order and can be missed when browsing the index without utilizing the sub-indexes.

For an example of a Cottco Universal Index, see "North Carolina, Probate Records, 1735-1970," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1-19427-66243-14?cc=1867501&wc=10920704 : accessed 03 Jan 2014), Bladen > Wills Index, 1766-1961 > image 201 of 487.

Cott Family Name

Family Name indexes have a separate page for each surname. In a Cott Family Name Index, sub-indexes are interspersed throughout the general index. The associated pages of the general index immediately follow each sub-index.

An extension tab or separate volume subdivides the general index into surname initials. For example, [AA-AZ], [BAA-BN], and [BOA-BZ]. Marginal cuts further subdivide the index by the second letter of the surname or guide letters. For example, [Ba], [Be], and [Bi Bj-Bk Bl]. Sub-indexes are further divided according to printed designations at the tops of columns. For example, [Bar], [Bas Bat], and [Bau to Baz]. Individual surnames indicate the page number in the general index. Surnames that sound alike may be indexed together. For example, "Barnes-Barns."

The pages for surnames may not appear in alphabetical order, in which case use of the subindexes is vital. See the Greenville County plat record example rerenced below.

An example Cott Family Name index can be found in the Mecklenburg County, North Carolina register of deeds. For an example sub-index page, see http://www.meckrodindex.com/oldindexsearch.php?imgtype=pdf&datekey=1763-1840&path=baa-bn&bookpath=a-l&tortee=TOR&indexNum=003.

For the Baker page in the general index, see http://www.meckrodindex.com/oldIndexPageSearch.php?datekey=1763-1840&imgtype=pdf&path=baa-bn&bookpath=a-l&tortee=TOR&indexNum=001&pageNum=000002&imgNumNum=001&book=&bookType=&imgPos=10#000-14.

For other examples, consult the several indexes to records from the Greenville County, South Carolina register of deeds. Federal Tax Lien records and plat records are two of these.

Cott Guide Letter

A key table provides a page number based on the first letter of the surname combined with the first letter of the given name.

Liber Index

These indexes are organized by the initial letter of the surname and further distinguished by the volume (liber). All "C" surnames are grouped together with those for Volume 1 listed first, followed by Volume 2, etc.

An example can be found in Davidson County, North Carolina death indexes. A volume was kept for each year. Within the year, entries are organized by registration date, not by death date. See "North Carolina, Davidson County Vital Records, 1867-1984," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-267-11662-61295-11?cc=1387049&wc=MMB5-14T:1614561651 : accessed 02 Jan 2014), Index to deaths > 1914-1924, Vol 001 > image 1 of 140.

Paul Company Key Table Index

Entries in this index are grouped by the first three letters of the surname, then arranged in chronological order. Accordingly, all entries starting with WAC are grouped together. All entries starting with WAD are in another group. A key table at the front of each volume provides a page reference to each letter group.

An example key table can be found in Records of Maryland at http://aomol.net/000001/000546/pdf/am546--34.pdf.

Russell Key Index

This index is not based on the first letter of the surname. Instead, it is based on key letters (L, M, N, R, and T) that follow the initial letter of the surname. For this reason, is sometimes called the LMNRT or L-M-N-R-T index. Surnames Camp, Chapman, Coffman, and Cushman would appear under the key letter “M;” Carr, Coker, Creecy, and Cubberly would appear under the key letter “R.” First names are arranged alphabetically within each key letter. The entries are then arranged chronologically within each combination of key letter and first name.

As an example, consider locating Agnes Rockwell in the Mercer County, Pennsylvania 1800-[1971] estate index. Start with the volume for surnames starting with R. L is the first key letter after the initial R in Rockwell. A is the first letter of the given name, Agnes. Check the guide to key letters In the front of the volume to find the section number associated with the key letter L and given names starting with A. It is section 11. Go to section 11 and scan the chronological entries for Agnes Rockwell.

Split Column Indexes

Some indexes split a name column to make it easier to scan the page for desired entries.

One Irwin Hodson index has a surname column split into four. In the column headings, the clerk could write in different letter ranges for each column. For example, Aa, Aba-Abd, Abe-Abq, and Abr-Abz. As the clerk entered entries, surnames could be entered into the respective columns. For an example, see "Washington, County Records, 1856-2009," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-24072-12155-74?cc=1910364&wc=M9HM-YV4:n1101196143 : accessed 02 Jan 2014), Pierce > General index grantee 1915-1917 A-C > image 2 of 335.

One split column index has 13 letter-pair columns, each labeled with two consecutive letters of the alphabet. When the clerk entered a name into the name column, he would duplicate one of the letters, such as the second letter of the surname, into the appropriate letter-pair column. Take as an example an index page set aside for surnames and given names starting with A and E, respectively. When the name Elizabeth Anderson was entered, the letter N would be written in the M-N column. For Esther Acker, C would be entered in the C-D column. For an actual example, see "Pennsylvania, Probate Records, 1683-1994," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-28757-10573-2?cc=1999196&wc=M99F-4K7:n600653339 : accessed 02 Jan 2014), Lancaster > Will index 1729-1947 A-K > image 10 of 562.

Another split column index has five given name columns, A-B-C-D-E, F-G-H-I-J, K-L-M-N-O, P-Q-R-S-T, and U-V-W-X-Y-Z. When a clerk entered a name, the given name was written in the appropriate column. For an example, see "New York, Land Records, 1630-1975," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1961-32528-1145-1?cc=2078654&wc=M9M4-XLN:n1538802258 : accessed 02 Jan 2014), Oneida > Grantee index 1791-1884 Ho-L > image 7 of 632.

To use a split-column index, determine which of the columns applies to the entry you are searching for. Then scan that column, ignoring blank entries.


Soundex is a phonetic index that groups together names that sound alike but are spelled differently, for example, Stewart and Stuart. This helps searchers find names that are spelled differently than originally expected, a relatively common genealogical research problem. For more information, see "Soundex."

Vowel Index

The initial letter is combined with the first vowel of the surname. Surnames Campbell, Chandler, and Craig would be found under the heading “CA.”

Other Indexes

Some indexes don't fit into these categories. For instance, the New Hampshire vital records are indexed using the first and third letter of the surname.

Land Indexes

Person-to-person land transfers are often indexed separately by the surname of the buyer or by the surname of the seller. These records are called by various names. Those indexed by the surname of the buyer might be referred to as "Grantee," "Reverse," or "Indirect" indexes. Those indexed by the surname of the seller might be referred to as "Grantor," "Forward," or "Direct" indexes.

Tips for Using Indexes

  1. Introductory pages to a record or a book might explain how the index is arranged and provide a key to abbreviations used.
  2. Indexes might appear as a separate record, at the beginning or end of a record, in each volume, or in the initial or final volume only.
  3. Don’t assume that the index is complete. Many indexes do not include everyone mentioned. A land index, for instance, might only list the husband, even if the wife is mentioned in the record.
  4. Check all possible spelling variations.
  5. Check to see if additions or corrections were included in a special section at the end of the index.
  6. Don’t stop with the index; examine the original record, if possible.
  7. Expect indexing errors to occur.
  8. If the person isn’t located in the index, check the record anyway.


  • "Identifying and Using Indexes," Maryland State Archives, Guide to Government Records (http://guide.mdsa.net/viewer.cfm?page=using%20indexes : accessed 31 December 2013).
  • Radoff, Morris L., Gust Skordas, and Phebe R. Jacobsen. The County Courthouses and Records of Maryland, Part Two: The Records, Publication No. 13. Annapolis, Maryland: The Hall of Records Commission, 1963.Available online, http://aomol.net/000001/000546/html/index.html. Accessed 2013.
  • Rose, Christine. Courthouse Indexes Illustrated. San Jose, California : CR Publications, 2006.
  • Sittner, Kathi. “Documents in Detail: Land Deed Indexes,” Ancestry 12 (November/December 1994).
  • Sperry, Kip. “The Index: A Tool for the Genealogist,” The Genealogical Helper 30 (January 1976).