Making the Most of an Index

An index is an index—or is it? Indexes can range from printed lists of alphabetized names to computer databases that allow users to pick and choose from several searchable fields. In her 2006 National Genealogical Society Quarterly article, “Job1 Davidson, Cooper in Baltimore, Maryland, and His Long Lost Descendants in Ohio and Indiana: Using Occupation and Birthplace as Census Finding Aids,”[1] author Helen Hinchliff reveals how she took advantage of what was then a relatively new index feature: the ability to search some censuses using occupation and birthplace. As she demonstrates, breakthroughs can result from creative use of indexes.

Hinchliff knew the parents and grandparents of her subject, Henry3 Davis. Henry was turned over to his maternal aunt after his mother’s death. His father and grandfather were named Davidson, but Henry’s guardian aunt reportedly changed his surname to Davis. Henry was one of five children listed in his aunt’s guardianship petition, so it was clear he had siblings. Hinchliff, however, was unable to find any trace of the other children or their descendants—until the release of federal census indexes that allowed searches on fields other than names.

The author’s preliminary search for census records for Henry’s father George resulted in dozens of possibilities in states of interest, but none matched what was known about George. While his occupation was unknown, Hinchliff did know that George’s father, Job, had been a cooper—a profession that was often passed down from fathers to sons. Armed with that knowledge and aware of a feature on the 1880 census index that allowed searches on the occupation field, Hinchliff focused on combinations of people named Davidson or Davis with the occupation of cooper. Later she added state of birth, yielding even more focused results. Using this approach, she successfully broke through her logjam. She went on to identify and trace a number of Henry’s siblings and their descendants.

What can we learn from Hinchliff’s success? Two important lessons are that indexes are not all the same and that successful use of an index depends a great deal on the user’s creativity and resourcefulness.

Today’s genealogist is much more likely to use an index online than to search a print publication. Online databases and collections of images are constantly changing. Content providers are adding new indexes almost daily. Some record collections have multiple indexes developed by competing providers. Some providers even have more than one index to the same records, perhaps created by different organizations for different purposes and with varying levels of accuracy and completeness. Genealogists who keep track of new and updated research tools can take advantage of options that were previously unavailable. For example, while some indexes to New York City death records include only the name, borough, date, and certificate number of the deceased,’s indexes to those same records include names of related individuals—parents, for example. Informed researchers can take advantage of that added benefit.

When using databases and online indexes, wise researchers gradually expand their searches to ensure they find all potentially relevant entries. After checking for exact spellings, dates, and locations, they extend the search outward. They use wildcards and soundex options for names.[2] They consider ranges of dates or years rather than limit themselves to precise search terms. They go beyond exact places and extend to records mentioning only a county or state; they consider results mentioning neighboring counties and states. They pay close attention to the returned matches, scrolling through the results with the idea that indexers could have misread words or incorrectly entered data, and they pursue matches that could reflect those potential errors.

When a database search returns no matches at all, it is possible that one or more of the specified search parameters disqualifies results. For example,’s index to the 1905 New York state census allows users to enter state of birth, but the index reflects what is shown in the record—country of birth, not state. If the user requests matches for people born in, say, New York, results will be negative.

Given the availability of more and more automated indexes, some newcomers to genealogy overlook the fact that other types of indexes are available. For example, some digital collections on do not yet have database indexes but do include digitized images of index volumes that can be browsed. New York land records are but one example.

Resourceful genealogists seek out indexes that aren’t available online. Local repositories may have indexes in printed form, on microfilm or microfiche, or in an unpublished database. Public libraries, for example, often have indexes to local newspapers.

Indexes are not all the same. It is important to stay informed about available indexes—both on and offline—and the options available for using them. For more ideas see Elizabeth Shown Mills’s QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Finding People in Databases and Indexes[3] and watch for the upcoming issue of NGS Magazine that will focus on methods for using a variety of indexes effectively. As Hinchliff’s article shows, by carefully and cleverly using indexes, genealogists can move forward in their work.

[1] Helen Hinchliff, “Job1 Davidson, Cooper in Baltimore, Maryland, and His Long Lost Descendants in Ohio and Indiana: Using Occupation and Birthplace as Census Finding Aids,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 94 (June 2006): 85–100; PDF, NGSQ Archives ( : 7 July 2017).

[2] “Internet Search Tips,” FamilySearch Research Wiki ( : 10 July 2017).

[3] Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Finding People in Databases and Indexes (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2012).

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