Genealogical Indexes: Friend or Foe?

Indexes of genealogical records can be a researcher’s best friend. They can help you understand available information in a record group, know whether your surname or other keywords are present, and quickly locate the actual record. Yet, for all these benefits, indexes can also – unintentionally – cause us to misinterpret information, prevent us from discovering other contextually relevant information, and bias us toward some information at the expense of other data.

Indexes are game-changers and have made my research more efficient and effective. I am so thankful for the organizations and individuals who took the time and expense to create them. In my way of thinking, indexes are truly a “friend”.

I recently published a proof argument on my website titled, “Parents of Rebecca Pettit (1819-1904), who married John Gable about 1843 in Chester County, Pennsylvania”. In the preparation of the report, I was reminded of the pitfalls in relying too heavily on indexes. In some ways, indexes can truly become a “foe”. 

Let me explain using examples from this recently published proof argument.

Brief Background Details
I wrote the report on Rebecca Pettit (1819-1904) for myself to help me understand how I potentially relate to a cousin who is part of an autosomal genetic cluster I’m investigating for my McMasters line. My cousin’s family tree stopped with Rebecca Pettit and John Gable, which is the ancestral couple where several DNA matches within the cluster converged through different children of John and Rebecca. Rebecca’s line was entirely unknown not only by my cousin but also by anyone else with a publicly available family tree where she was included. Thus, Rebecca Pettit became my research focus. 

Thankfully, my research on Rebecca principally took place in Chester County, Pennsylvania where the Chester County Archives maintains many online indexes.[1] As organizations go, they are surely a friend!

I present four research strategies to ensure indexes remain your friend and not your foe. 

#1 – Always View the Original Document
Early in my research, I suspected that Rebecca Pettit’s father was likely Gardner Pettit, who was poor and resided in Chester County, Pennsylvania. I won’t get into the details here how the hypothesis developed as my report adequately address this. 

In my search, I consulted online indexes for poorhouse records maintained by the Chester County Archives and found three Pettit entries in the Poor School Children records (see below).[2] Poor School Children records list the children aged five to twelve whose parents require county assistance to educate their children.[3]

I ordered copies of the original records for the two Gardner Pettit entries as possible exhibits for my report but did not order the other record where the parents’ names were not listed. I was familiar enough with these records to know that if the parents’ names were not listed, I would only see the names of the children and their corresponding ages. So, what value is there to see the original record? 

Ok, you probably see where this is going. A couple of weeks later, I finally ordered the original 1823 record for James (aged 7) and Hosea (aged 5).[4] When I say I was shocked when I saw the actual record, this is an understatement. The spelling of Hosea didn’t quite look like Hosea. In fact, the actual written name for “Hosea” was only four letters long, not five. It seemed to be missing the “a”. 

If you’ve done much research during the U.S. Colonial period, you have probably noticed that people often wrote an “s” like an “f”. I could see how the transcriber might have thought the third character was an “s”, but I suspected differently. To me, it appeared like a “p”. If correct, then it made other indirect evidence I had come into better focus. Let me elaborate.

In the 1850 census, I found Evelina (Pettit) Orner living in Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania, which is next to Chester County.[5] Recall that Evelina was one of the children of Gardner Pettit listed in the 1819 and 1820 Poor Children School records shown in the first image. Living with Evelina in 1850 was Hope Pettit whose birth year in the census was 1817,[6] which is one year off the 1818 birth year suggested in the Poor Children School record. 

A broader search for other Pettits in Berks County revealed a James C. Pettit living in the same city as Evelina and Hope.[7] The census indicated he was born in 1816, which is the same year as the Poor Children School record listed for the James appearing with Hope (Hosea). After building out the family trees for several of my cousin’s DNA matches, I discovered DNA matches to descendants for both James and Hope within appropriate shared DNA cM ranges and part of the same Pettit genetic clusters.

Analysis Summary: As communicated in an earlier blog post (The Power of Original Records), never accept indexes, transcriptions, or other derived records as correct. Like those who originally created the record, transcribers are human, and while rare, errors can exist. If possible, always view the original record.

#2 – Read the Entire Index Entry
Through Ancestry.com indexing of Chester County wills, I discovered that Gardner Pettit’s wife was Hannah Doughton.[8] I also knew Gardner Pettit was poor, so I consulted other poorhouse record groups, including Outdoor Allowances, which are funds paid out to individuals who were not qualified to be supported in the poorhouse, but who required assistance to live outside of it.[9]

As the image above shows, only three Pettit entries were found.[10] Hannah Pettit is found along with two other Pettit names that were unknown to me. If one concentrates solely on the names, other important information can be missed such as a possible relationship between Hannah, Enoch, and Warwick. Note all three entries are from the same year, same volume, and same page. This fact seems obvious when highlighted with red boxes. I hate to admit it, but I in my excitement and ferver in doing this research, I overlooked these facts the first time I viewed the index.

The actual record from the index is found below.

The above record does not indicate the relationship between Hannah Pettit and Enoch and Warwick Pettit, but if we consult other indexes, we may have a better understanding of this record thereby helping us to decide whether to order the original image. I found the following entries in the Poorhouse Steward’s Books, which capture detailed accounts for how poorhouse funds are allocated (see below).

A review of the actual record puts it all together. As shown below, Enoch and Warrick [sic] are stated to be the children of Gardner Pettit, and most probably, Hannah (Doughton) Pettit.[11]

Analysis Summary: If you have a concern for budget or time in acquiring original records, use multiple indexes to help you triangulate information. In our haste or excitement, we can miss obvious information or dismiss records as irrelevant because we don’t read the entire index entry. Indeed, as researchers we are often guilty of this with census records, for example, concentrating on names, ages, and birth locations but not reading information found in the columns to the right of the vital statistics, which can contain other clues and insightful information. 

#3 – View All Records for Your Surname of Interest
Sometimes we can become too focused on the person we are researching and miss other important records. I was searching for Rebecca Pettit, but she did not appear in any index held by the Chester County Archives. I only found her as a married adult in census records.[12]

Yet, when I expanded my search to all Pettit index entries, I discovered a significant amount of indirect evidence tying Rebecca to her newly discovered siblings and parents. This in turn led me to discover within my cousin’s autosomal DNA matches descendants of Rebecca’s new siblings, and they were all part of the same genetic cluster. (Note: I had to build out the family trees for many of my cousin’s matches to see these patterns, which is a topic for another blog post.)

#4 – Keep a Research Log
Maintaining a research log was critical for me to not only make these discoveries, but to see the patterns within the indirect evidence I collected. The log also ensured that I didn’t accidentally skip an index. Chester County has upwards of 100 indexes, depending how you count them! 

Create a research log that meets your needs, whether it be on paper or within software programs such as Word or Excel. Online Google Sheets or Airtable work extremely well, too, and can be easily accessible when you’re away from your computer. Nicole Dyer at Family Locket has several great videos on how to use Airtable and research logs.[13]

Summary in Brief
Indexes can be valuable tools in solving genealogical problems providing we spend the time to review the entire index entry and not rush to conclusions about what we find (or don’t find) in the index.


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[1] Chester County Archives (n.d.), Records, Guides & Indexes, Chester County, Pennsylvania, accessed 10 May 2022 at https://www.chesco.org/193/Records-Guides-Indexes.

[2] Chester County, Pennsylvania, “Poor School Children 1810-1842 P-Z”, Index, Chester County Archives (www.chesco.org, accessed 5 May 2022). 

[3] Chester County, Pennsylvania, “General Information” in Poor School Children Records, 1810-1842, Chester County Archives (www.chesco.org, accessed 10 May 2022).

[4] Chester County, Pennsylvania, Poor School Children Records, 1810-1842, James and Hope Pettit (1823), West Caln, p. 197; database with index, Chester County Archives (www.chesco.org, accessed 5 May 2022).

[5] 1850 U.S. census, Berks County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Reading South West Ward, p. 320b, dwelling 509, family 542, image 68 of 90, Adelina Lohner [Orner] in Jesse Lohner [Orner] household; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 10 April 2022); citing NARA microfilm M432, roll 752.

[6] 1850 U.S. census, Berks County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Reading South West Ward, p. 320b, dwelling 509, family 542, image 68 of 90, Hope Pettit in Jesse Lohner [Orner] household; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 10 April 2022); citing NARA microfilm M432, roll 752.

[7] 1850 U.S. census, Berks County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Reading Spruce Ward, p. 336b, dwelling 82, family 82, image 10 of 72, James C Petit; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 10 April 2022); citing NARA microfilm M432, roll 752.

[8] Pennsylvania, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993, Samuel Doughton (1825), West Caln, image 436 of 537; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 10 April 2022); citing Chester County Register of Wills, p. 163, Will Book O, Volume 14.

[9] Chester County, Pennsylvania, “Outdoor Allowances, 1800-1856”, Chester County Archives, West Chester (www.chesco.org, accessed 24 April 2022).

[10] Chester County, Pennsylvania, “Outdoor Allowances, 1800-1856, Pauper”, Chester County Archives, West Chester (www.chesco.org, accessed 24 April 2022).

[11] Chester County, Pennsylvania, U.S., Book of Monthly Report of the Steward, 1825-1827, February Report 1824: Gardner Pettit, Warwick Pettit, and Enoch Pettit of West Caln (1825, January 25), p. 3.

[12] 1850 U.S. census, Chester County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Honey Brook, p. 391b, dwelling 174, family 191, image 24 of 48, Rebecca Goble in John Goble household; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 10 April 2022); citing NARA microfilm M432, roll 766.

[13] See for example, Dyer, N. (2020), How to Use Airtable to Create a Genealogy FAN Club Research Log, accessed 10 May 2022 at https://youtu.be/LtHLmpiJdYE. And Dyer, N. (2020), How to Use Airtable for a DNA Research Log, accessed 10 May 2022 at https://youtu.be/Xnq8FdiCDSc. And Dyer, N. (2022), Revisiting Research Logs Again, accessed 10 May 2022 at https://youtu.be/fnK86xJTZcI

Published by Rick T Wilson, PhD

As the Family Pattern Genealogist™, I detect and analyze patterns in genealogically relevant data using DNA and other traditional records.

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