Editor's Note: This article is the second in a two-part
Read Part I.
Any index has drawbacks. The Soundex indexes are no exception.
Let's talk about some of the problems with using Soundex indexes.
What’s That First Letter?
Given the way Soundex numbers are coded, any incorrect reading of the
initial letter of the surname will result in a coding with a different
initial letter. It is a good idea to pay close attention to spelling
variants where the initial letter is different. These variants may be
partially due to original record legibility.
There's an entry in an early 1900 passenger list where the
surname is actually supposed to be Watchendorf. The handwriting
certainly looks like Natchendorf, and someone unfamiliar with the
individuals could easily read the initial letter as an "N." This
significantly affects the Soundex code for the surname: Watchendorf has
Soundex code W325, and Natchendorf has Soundex code N325. I can look in
the W325 section of the Soundex until the end of time and still not
locate the desired entry if the transcriber thought the surname began
with an "N."
Good news! Vowels misread as other vowels do not affect the Soundex
code because vowels are ignored when the code is assigned. Some
misreadings of consonants do not effect the Soundex code either. If
WOGE is misread as WOZE, the Soundex number will still be W200.
Transcription errors that exchange a letter for one of its Soundex
"equivalents" do not require searching for additional Soundex numbers.
Other misreadings can result in different Soundex codes,
however. Occasionally the surname Trautvetter is misread as Tranvetter
(regular readers will note that this name gives rise to many good
"difficult" examples). Trantvetter has Soundex code T653, but the
Soundex code it should have for Trautvetter is T631. So there's one
more variation to add and one more Soundex code to consider for this
Whenever vowels are misread as consonants a different Soundex
code will be created. Soundex was not created to handle handwriting
What If the Name Isn't English or Has a
This is a problem. Soundex is based on "English-language" phonics.
Consider the surname Robidoux where the final "X" is silent. This name
has many variants, including Rabideau, which codes to R130, and
Robidoux, which codes to R132. The silent "X" is coded, but it is not
pronounced. Oops, this is a problem and one that researchers must be
aware of. Soundexers did not "pronounce" the name when they coded it.
They simply coded the letters.
Another surname of non-English origin, Cawiezell, also has
several Soundex variants:
The difficulties with Soundex can be irritating. Pronunciations of
"English" surnames are not always consistent, let alone non-English
names. Surnames that are Russian, Polish, Greek, or from any other
language significantly different from English require special care when
using the Soundex.
Who Is In the Soundex?
1880 Soundex. The 1880 Soundex to federal census
records only includes entries for those households that contained an
individual ten years of age or under. If your great-grandparents were
over 50 and living by themselves, they will not be included in the
Soundex for that year.
1900 Soundex. The 1900 Soundex includes a card for
every head of household and every adult in a household who did not have
the same surname as the head of the household. So in theory, your aged
ancestor living with his son’s family will not have his own card
(assuming that both the ancestor and his son have the same surname). A
parent who is living with a married daughter should have his or her own
Soundex card (assuming the surname is different from the head of
1910 Soundex. The difficulty here is that only 21
states have Soundex (in some cases, they have Miracode indexes, which
are similar to Soundex). Those states are: Alabama, Arkansas,
California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana,
Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma,
Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West
1920 Soundex. All states have a set of Soundex cards
for this census.
Is the Soundex All There Is?
Absolutely not! The Soundex should lead the researcher to the actual
census entry, where the researcher will learn more than what is on the
Soundex card and may even discover that the Soundexer misinterpreted
something. There are more clues to be found in the actual census
record, so be sure to view it. The Soundex is a link, not the end of
Do We All Have To Use Soundex?
No. Frankly, I rarely used Soundex until I started researching my
wife's ancestors. My own families were, for the most part, rural. I
knew what townships and counties they were living (for those censuses
that have Soundexes), and I preferred to view the actual census film
myself. I located scads of relatives and cousins by viewing the actual
census. In some cases, it was easier to go through the entire township
(or several adjacent townships) in my search for potential family
members. This was especially true when the family did not move a great
distance. But this approach does not work with all families and did not
work with some of my wife's urban ancestors.
When To Use the Soundex
When you are uncertain of a specific location, the Soundex for that
state might be the place to start. For example, if
great-great-grandma's parents left Illinois for Missouri in 1876 and
you feel they were in Missouri in 1880, you might want to use the
Soundex to find their new township and county.
Also, when the location is a heavily populated, using the
Soundex can help. Such was the case in locating my wife’s
great-grandparents in the 1920 census in Cook County, Illinois. The
search was greatly facilitated by use of the Soundex .
With Frequent Mistakes and Omissions,
Sometimes the Soundex can save you hours, weeks, or even months of
work. And that time can be used for more "intensive" searches on those
family members who do not appear in the Soundex. Besides, if we threw
out every source or guide that contained errors, our library shelves
would be pretty bare!
Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the
Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in
Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg
College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS
FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State
Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on
a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to
several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine
and Genealogical Computing.
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