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Be Sure to Look at the Document!

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

US Census, North Hampstead, New Hampshire
1790 US Census, Source:

If you’ve been researching your family history for any length of time, I am sure you have run across an index to a document. It might be a card index located at the library from a series of records in their collection. It might also be an online index located on one of the genealogy websites. These indexes are a great way for a genealogist to find what could be important information from a document or a series of records. It will provide you with a brief summary to the information in the document. It can save the researcher a great deal of time without having to search through a pile of records.

Occasionally, the person who transcribed the information to the index card or the online index might have accidentally misinterpreted the information on the document. There are many reasons for this to happen. This would include difficulties reading the original record due to the age of the document. This could be due to the writing in the record being hard to decipher, or the enumerator of the original record misunderstood the ancestor due to the language barrier or accent. In any case, this confusion could lead the researcher into the wrong direction.

Census enumerators or immigration officers would type in the name or place of origin based on what they heard when interviewing the individual. Therefore, the spelling of a name or name of a town might be incorrect due to the interpretation of the person writing the document. The same thing applies to index cards and online indexes. The information you see in the index is based on the person who loaded in the information.

If the information in the index looks close to the person or what you are looking for in your research, be sure to check the original record. That original record might actually be what you are looking for in your research. The index might be wrong because the index was recorded incorrectly or the actual document might have had a misspelling. A quick search of the document might show this was the record you were actually attempting to locate.

I recently ran across a great example to this theory. I was looking through some passenger arrival lists and searching for an individual was emigrating from Germany to the United States. In this case, a small town in northern Wisconsin. The index showed many individuals with the similar names. One particular entry stood out to me but the information wasn't exactly what I was looking for in my research. This entry suggested that the person had left Germany in the late 1800s but implied that he was traveling to the Philippines.

I decided to check the document in detail and determined that the individual was not heading to the Philippines but rather to the town of "Phillips." This was the town in Wisconsin that this immigrant was heading to for his final destination. I could see that the town name was spelled correctly but was written in very small letters. It appears that the initials "WI" was written right after the town name.[1] I could see that someone who was not familiar with the towns in Wisconsin could have been a bit confused when writing the information for the index. The ship's officer, who wrote the document, might not have been very confident on the name of the town he heard from the immigrant who may not have know English very well. Thus, his accent probably played into the town name snafu as well! So the person writing the index documented what the person thought they were seeing in the record. No one in this group probably never even heard the name of this town before the day the list was recorded and later on when the index was written. So, this was definitely an honest mistake all the way around.

The moral of this story is "if the index looks reasonably close, take the time to check a copy of the original document." The document may still provide you with clues which could confirm the information you're researching. It is still worth the effort. If you run across an error, notify the library or the website with the corrected information. The bottom line is if the index looks very close, check the record to confirm the information. Remember the old saying, "leave no stone unturned," in this case, "leave no page unturned!"

[1] New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957, online database, (, Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010, Original Data: Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957. Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls. NAI: 300346. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives at Washington, D.C., in reference to the passenger ship list of Georg Lohmann, accessed 22 September, 2020.

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