Given Name(s) Last Name

From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 8/2/2000

Soundex, Part II

Editor's Note: This article is the second in a two-part series. 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."

Misread Vowels
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 surname.

Whenever vowels are misread as consonants a different Soundex code will be created. Soundex was not created to handle handwriting misinterpretations.

What If the Name Isn't English or Has a "Non-English" Pronunciation?
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:

    Name                   Soundex

    KOVITZEL          K132
    KOWIZELL         K240
    CAVIETZELL      C132
    CAVITZEL           C132
    CAWIEZELL       C240

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 household).

  • 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 Virginia.

  • 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 the line.

    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, Why Bother?
    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.

    © Copyright 2000,

  • Beyond the Index-Michael John Neill

    Michael John Neill's articles from the Ancestry Daily News