Casefile Clues

04 July 2014

What Does the Index Index?

For years the main indexes genealogists used were census indexes. We were glad to have them.

In the old days....

Pre-1850 US census indexes were head of household indexes only--for reasons that should be pretty obvious.

Census indexes for 1850 censuses and after usually only included the head of household and anyone within the household with a different last name. That was it, but those were the only indexes we had. Genealogy speakers and writers would remind researchers about the pitfalls of these indexes. Search strategies were constructed accordingly.


There's full name indexes to census records--a great boon to genealogists. We have access to images of materials from across the planet right at our computer. Often there are indexes to these materials--and with indexes sometimes come problems. This concern isn't about spelling and transcription errors--althouth those are valid concerns.

There's another issue with indexes that some sites don't make clear-especially when one set of records is indexed one way and another set of records on the same website is indexed in a different way.

Some indexes are full name indexes to every name appearing on every page and others are not and only index the names of the principals involved. Full name indexes are difficult to compile.I'm not complaining about the fact that many indexes are not full name indexes. I understand the reasons behind only indexing the names of the main people.

The problem?

Sometimes the website makes the type of indexing clear and sometimes it does not.

Knowing if the index is to every name or only to "main names" impacts how I use the database. It effects how I search., as an example, has an every name index to Revolutionary War pensions, but the homestead applications only index the applicants. I  understand why not every name is indexed and frankly I'm glad to have the materials to where they can be accessed. I'm not complaining about the decision to index only the main names.

I just wish websites would make their indexing procedure clear. I should not have to ferret out whether the index is every name or not. recently released a set of Revolutionary War pension applications and records.

Is the index only to the pensioners or is it to everyone?

I certainly can't tell from their "Source" and "About" information.

Can't they just tell us what the index indexes?