By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
Prolific American novelist Mark Twain is quoted as having said, “I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.” Those of us researching our family trees can all understand what he meant. Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828, but spelling wasn't entirely standardized by then. Lower literacy rates and non-standardized English made for what Mark Twain may have called "creative" spelling. The spelling of surnames continued to be especially flexible. Good genealogists understand the importance of using spelling variations when searching for ancestors. Some name variations, such as Thomson and Thompson, or Hanson and Hansen, are obvious. Others are more far-fetched and difficult to guess. Instead of scratching your head and trying to come up with variations, you can try searching by Soundex.
In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration began indexing census records by Soundex, a code based on the way names sound. Today, you can still search the Soundex index for some census years, and you can use the Soundex code to come up with possible surname variations.
The code is based on consonant sounds. Each consonant belongs to a different number:
1 B, P, F, V
2 C, S, K, G, J, Q, X, Z
3 D, T
5 M, N
To code a name, list the first letter of the name, regardless of whether it is a consonant or a vowel. Then code the next three consonants in the name. Ignore vowels and the letters Y and H.
For example, let’s Soundex my last name, Brown.
Take the first letter of the name:
Take the next consonant, R, and find its Soundex number:
Code the next consonant, N:
Since there is not a third consonant, fill in a zero:
The Soundex code for Brown is B-650, and it can represent Braun, Browne, or Brown. If there are double letters in a surname, such as in Pullman or Jessop, code the double letters as if they were one. If there are letters side by side that are not the same but are assigned to the same number, code the letters as if they were one. For example, in the surname Jackson, the letters C, K, and S are all side by side, and so they are Soundexed as one number. Thus Jackson becomes J-250.
If you are searching for names with prefixes, such as Van Orden or O'Connor, you should try searching for the name with and without the prefix. On the other hand, when you search for Scottish names such as McDonald or MacIntyre, you should include the prefix as part of the coded name.
Once you know the Soundex code for the family name you are looking for, you can find the family in the Soundex. Almost all census record collections, whether online or on microfilm, have an index available for all census records that have been Soundexed. The index will tell you where to find to find the actual census record for your ancestral family. You can also use the Soundex code to generate alternate surnames to search in other records. For example, Johnson can become Janssen, Jameson, or Jenison. The elusive family you are searching for may just be hiding behind a variant surname, and the Soundex can help you uncover them.