Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
Many seasoned genealogists are familiar with the federal census Soundex codes. Many have even used the Soundex cards before census records were digitized and made available online with their own indexes. Some newer to the scene are unfamiliar with the system. This blog post is meant to provide you with some basic information about what it is, when and why it was created, and how to use it.
What it is: At the most basic explanation, the Soundex is an index of surnames based on how the name sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound similar but spelled differently are grouped together using Soundex code. For example, Smith vs. Smyth vs. Smythe all have the same code (S530); however, not all similar names have the same code. For example, the names Johnson (J525) and Johnston (J523) are different due to the extra consonant letter.
When and why created: The Soundex was created in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the Social Security Administration, which was created by an act passed in 1935 during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term.
President Roosevelt signing Social Security Act – Image courtesy of the Social Security Administration
After creation of the Social Security Administration, those who applied for old-age benefits had to prove when they were born; however, some had no proof since they were born before the time their state began recording births (1913 in NC). The Soundex was created due to census records usually being reliable proof of when and where a person was born. It was very time consuming to go through every census record to find a person. With the Soundex, they were able to find people much quicker!
Soundex indexes were created for the census years of 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930. Only households with children aged 10 and younger were indexed in the 1880 census. All households were indexed for the later years but not all states were indexed in 1910 or 1930. North Carolina has Soundex for all five of these censuses.
How to use the Soundex: The first step is to write out the name. The first letter in the surname is kept and then all vowels are dropped as well as the letters H,W, and Y. Using my own surname we have: Bradford=Brdfrd.
Next, we change the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th letters into numbers in accordance with the code at the top: B631. We do not include the last 2 letters in this case. The reason for that is we only use 3 numbers or codes.
With the surname Jones: Jones=Jns. This becomes J520 – zero because we ran out of letters.
Names that begin with Mc such as McClain and McNeill are figured out the same way and begin with M2…. If the surname is MacDonald, for example, it still begins with M2 because the “a” is a dropped vowel.
Finally, in the case of the surname Tillman, we have a double letter. In this case, the 2nd L is dropped. We have: Tillman=Tlmn=T455. Double numbers are ok, but not double letters.
So why use the Soundex when we have access to census indexes online? Sometimes a family just does not show up online, no matter how hard you look. We have had researchers successfully locate their missing relatives by using Soundex and census microfilm. Come visit us at the Government and Heritage Library to view our North Carolina Soundex for the 1880 and 1900-1930 censuses!
Further reading about the Soundex: