10 January 2010

Problems With Indexes

Overheard at the Oklahoma Genealogical Society meeting last summer:

" I just can't find my ancestor in the census anywhere!"
"Did you try the soundex listing?"
" yes, and it didn't turn him up either!"
" Did you try any other variations of the name?"
"I tried a couple and didn't find anything...besides, he ALWAYS spelled his name the same way. I've given up on finding him in that census!"

When I heard this I just had to shake my head. Too many of us research as if we were the ones who created the records. Just think of one of your ancestors' more unusual surnames. If you heard that name how would you have spelled it? Did the family move into the area from a different area with a different accent? What kind of education did your ancestor have? What kind of education did the census taker have? Did other families of the same surname live in the area but spell the name differently? Did your ancestor speak with a lisp? Or with a guttural voice? Or did he mumble/garble his words?

There are so many reasons a surname may NOT show up in an initial census search. For nearly 20 years I published the "Beckwith Newsletter". I would spend hours abstracting Beckwith families from census and other records. Some of the variations of the name Beckwith showed up on the census as: Beckwith, Beckwirth, Beckworth, Buckwith, Becketh, Beckett, Brickwith, Brickworth, Bockwith, Bockweth, Peckwith, Deckwith, Beckurth, etc.

Notice that some of the Beckwith variations based on typos. Others are simple spelling errors. Others are transcription errors (the loop at the end of a cursive "B" looking like an "r", for example). An yet others are regional variations based on accent (try saying Beckwith with a southern accent- the soft with coming out as worth).

My point here is that you have to think outside the box when you get stumped. I spent an hour yesterday checking my Oklahoma Death index of over 100,000 entries for certain spelling variations:

cemetery: cemetry, cemeterey, cemertery, cemetey, cemetety.
buried: bruied
grace: grce
ordered: orderd
Thomas: Thoams

As you can see, most of the mistakes that I catch myself making are typographical errors. That's what happens when you get someone who "hunts and pecks". Imagine yourself as a menially paid indexer. How careful would you be? How diligent would you be? How tired would you get reading and typing hour after hour.

Think outside the box. Try typing your ancestor's last name but intentionally type a wrong letter (the same letter you often "miss" when typing). Try a search in THAT name and see what turns up.

PLEASE....remember that indexes are research aides ONLY...ALWAYS check out the sources your self to verify. As my football coach taught in Jr. High...never ASSUME...It just makes an ASS out of U and ME. In real estate they talk about Location, Location, Location. I guess in genealogy we need to talk about Verify, Verify, Verify!

Until next time.....

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