Saturday, April 13, 2019

Remember Soundex? Consider Sound AND Spelling!

When I began my genealogy journey 21 years ago, I had to learn new vocabulary, such as Soundex.

Soundex is a method of classifying a surname based on the way it sounds. The National Archives explains it here.

I quickly picked up the basics, and any time I was at the local Family History Center, I could consult the Soundex poster as a refresher.

These days you can go to a converter like this and type in the name. Out pops the Soundex code, which consists of a letter and three digits. As shown here, my great-grandpa Farkas's Soundex code is F-622.

Why care today? Even though indexing and other advances have made genealogy research faster and easier, sometimes the old methodology offers clues to help us find elusive ancestors.

Farkas Sounds Like . . . 

More than 30 years ago, my wonderful Cousin B went looking for our ancestor Moritz Farkas (1857-1936).

There was no such thing as an indexed census with full names for every person in every household. She couldn't log into a database, type in a name, and pull up a listing of possible results.

No, Cousin B began by looking at microfilmed 3x5 index cards filed by Soundex code, listing those in the 1900 Census. Hand-cranking the microfilm reader, she read every card carefully to try and find Moritz.

At top, you can see the index card she eventually found among the F-622 cards for that Census. As soon as she saw it, she said the name "Furkosh" out loud and realized this was the way it would sound in his native Hungarian.

Using the cross-reference at top right of the card, she pulled the microfilm for the correct Enumeration District and cranked to the page and line indicated. There was Moritz (as Morris, the Americanized given name), living as a boarder with a family in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Sound It Out!

When one of my second cousins* recently asked how Cousin B located Moritz Farkas, she sent the 3x5 card (long ago printed from the microfilm) and told us the story.

Trying to replicate the search with today's technology on Family Search, I entered basic info (name: Moritz Farkas; birth: 1857; residence: New York, New York in 1900).

Sure enough, the Morris Furkosh result appeared in the first 10 results, as shown in the snippet here. Clearly, Family Search does a great job of searching on the basis of how a surname sounds, not just spelling.

Knowing the sound of the name in Hungarian, I didn't overlook this result, which wasn't spelled like my ancestor's name of Farkas.

*This cousin found Moritz Farkas in the census with a different, creative search method. He ignored the surname and searched for Moritz and Morris in the 1900 Manhattan census records, including the birth year, hoping there would not be too many to sort through. When he came to the entry for "Furkosh" he remembered this was the Hungarian sound of the surname and knew he had found our ancestor!


  1. I remember Soundex very well. I'll have to keep it in mind for future searches. Good tip!

  2. And just as with today's digital indexing, it matters how the Soundex indexer read the letters. It took creative searching to find Henry Nation, as his name was indexed as Watiau!