Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Indexes, Indices and the Enemy

Rule One: Indexing is Not Transcribing Scenario: Why were the father and children of an Ireland born ancestors classified as mulattos? Wait...the last child is “white.” How could this be?

It’s not fair. My client, a professional writer, was looking forward to uncovering the mystery of her racial controversary. Her initial research verified that her Irish born ancestors was a mulatto, so were his children. She hired a3Genealogy to get to the root of this. Ouch! We have to tell her, that the index for her 1870 family, the premise of her story, was incorrectly “transcribed” by the indexer.

The Errors: The census indexer who read page 1, mistakenly determined the “W” as “M” under the “Race” column.  It could happen! Have you seen the handwriting on those census records?  

Most would ask why would the last child be white. In this case, it is because, that child was listed on the top of the next census page. Perhaps a new indexer was assigned or enough time lapsed to forget the previous page. Not sure, but these types of indexing errors are not rare.

What Is The Researcher To Do
The U.S. Public Records Index, Volume 1 and Volume 2 has posted the following Important Note:
As is neither the author nor the compiler of the data in its indexes, we cannot assume responsibility for the accuracy of this information. Please exercise caution when judging the accuracy of data in the U.S. Public Records Index. Some addresses and telephone numbers are invalid and birthdates may be inaccurate as well.
This “Important Note” should be applied to all indexes, encouraging researchers to go to the original source, or at least obtain authentic unedited clear copies. Be sure to review any available image to assess quality of the source image or errors inadvertently made. 

Remember there are other sites that may have clear copies, or different index results. Try, Heritage Quest,, Fold3 or even the local genealogy sites.

Client's Book
To my client: a book can still be written on the racial controversary but of course it would definitely be fictionalized. But with twists, turns and a bit of drama and love, it could be a Bestseller.

Correcting Index Errors’s online error reporting system, allows the user to submit a correction in  two basic ways. See the Help information on the website:
One is from the record summary page, which shows the indexed information plus a thumbnail image of the record; the other is from the census record image itself (if applicable; some records like the Social Security Death Index don’t have images). Regardless of where you add information from, we keep the original indexed information and add updates as alternate information. This means that if an update is incorrect, the original information is not lost.
For More Information
The Census Indexes and Finding Aids article gives a bit of the history of the accuracy of indexing.

Kathleen Brandt
Accurate, accessible answers


  1. Absolutely spot-on! Whenever a human being is involved, there is scope for a mistake. I couldn't agree more that it is important to check an alternative index, if available, and to always check the original document if possible :-)

  2. I have come across a similar situation. In the 1881 British census index on CD-ROM, five of my PEACOCK family at Stockton on Tees (Benjamin, Hannah, Mary, Daisy and Rose) are indexed as RACOCK, but the youngest child, Alice, is on the next page of the enumerator's return and correctly indexed as PEACOCK. I discovered this when I searched for an associated surname (HUGILL) and found a Mary HUGILL as a visitor in this household.

  3. Excellent post, Kathleen. This is why it so important to use the index as a finding aid to get to the original record.