United States Index Systems
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.
Some indexes might be strictly alphabetical but many are organized using only the initial letter of the surname. Another variation is to use the first and third letter of the surname (e.g. New Hampshire vital records indexes).
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.
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.
Cott System Indexes
The Cott Index Company has several indexing systems that are organized in one of these basic ways:
• Every surname is given a separate page with given names listed alphabetically.
• A key table provides a page number based on the first letter of the surname combined with the first letter of the given name
• (Same description as “Russell Key” below.)
• The alphabet is divided into sections or letter groupings with tab sheets and indexes for each grouping.
These index the volumes as a unit within each initial letter of the surname. “J” surnames for Volume 1 would be grouped together, followed by “J” surnames for Volume 2, etc.
Paul Company Key Table Index
This index is grouped by the first three letters of the surname, then arranged in chronological order. A key table at the front of each volume provides a page reference to each letter group.
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. 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.” The given names are then arranged alphabetically within each group of key letters.
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. (Read more)
The initial letter is combined with the first vowel of the surname. Surnames Campbell, Chandler, and Craig would be found under the heading “CA.”
Tips for Using Indexes
• Introductory pages to a record or a book might explain how the index is arranged and provide a key to abbreviations used.
• 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.
• 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.
• Check all possible spelling variations.
• Check to see if additions or corrections were included in a special section at the end of the index.
• Don’t stop with the index; examine the original record, if possible.
• Expect indexing errors to occur.
• If the person isn’t located in the index, check the record anyway.
• 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.
• 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).