Newcomers to genealogy are sometimes confused by the word soundex. Whereas those who have been researching for decades have likely memorized the soundex codes for each of their favorite ancestors’ surnames. With the advent of every-name census indexes, soundex has been somewhat left behind.
A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists & Historians by Barbara Jean Evans, defines soundex as:
A system of indexing surnames that sound alike. Consonants have certain values, vowels are ignored. The first letter of the name and three digits are used, e.g. Evans = E152. This system is used to index the 1880, 1900 and 1910 censuses and some states use the soundex code on drivers’ licenses.
Now doesn’t that sound exciting??? Evans is right – to be able to search the census records, we used to have to translate our ancestors’ surnames into a soundex code. Manuals were written about how to do this.
Here are some coding rules:
1 – B P F V
2 – C S K G J Q X Z
3 – D T
4 – L
5 – M N
6 – R
Do not code A, E, I, O, U, W, Y, and H.
Note that surname prefixes such as van, Von, Di, de, le, D’, dela, or du are sometimesdisregarded in alphabetizing and in coding.
. . . many other little rules
Confused? You don’t need to be. Computers have made this easier – even Legacy Family Tree has a built-in soundex code calculator.
So do we still use Soundex codes?
Not as much as we used to, but still – passenger lists, vital record indexes, and other record groups are still indexed/sorted by soundex code. For example, the Washington state death indexes are arranged this way. To search for my BROWN relatives, I need to know that B-650 is the right code, because all the Browns, and possibly even other surnames are grouped/indexed together.
Calculating this code is easy in Legacy:
Click on the Tools tab.
Click on Soundex Calculator.
Type in the desired surname, and click Calculate Soundex Code.
Locating other surnames with the same soundex code
Perhaps you are researching the Brown surname. Throughout your research, you’ve found and recorded several variants for the surname. Remembering all the variants is hard to do all the time. Legacy’s Search Name List button on the Soundex Calculator will search all the surnames in your family file and give you a list of those surnames that also have the same soundex code as B-650.
Even search engines at the big genealogy sites recognize the value of searching for similarly-sounding names.
At www.myheritage.com/research, click on the Advanced Search link and then click on the Match Similar Names option to pull up this menu of choices:
At https://search.findmypast.com/search-world-records add a checkmark next to Name Variants:
At http://search.ancestry.com click on the “Exact” option below the surname:
At https://www.familysearch.org/search, leave the checkmark box blank:
Clearly, each site has its own tools and vary from a checkmark to using the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex. Experiment with each of the settings in your searching and you may be surprised how your ancestors’ names were spelled.
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