Searching beyond soundex

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John_Pergler_1900_SoundexI remember the good old days back in the 1990s (yeah, those are MY good ol’ days!) when the only data you could search was on a CD ROM and you could only search for the exact name you wanted. Since all of our ancestors were fluent in English and could spell and pronounce their names perfectly, and the clerks at the County offices and census takers could understand them and write with flawless penmanship, there was no problem.

Ok. You can tell by now that I’m kidding.

It took awhile for some of the genealogy web sites to use special search techniques such as soundex. I’ve discussed soundex in other columns. Your driver’s license starts with the soundex code for your last name. We used soundex to find records that we might not otherwise find by searching just for the correctly spelled surname. If you have a surname with two r’s, and two l’s, and two vowels that are sometimes spelled “ie” and sometimes “ei”, using a soundex search could find, for example, Carella, Carrella, Carrela, Cerrela, Corolla, etc. This does help us find many possible misspellings. However, if the clerk writes down “Korolla” because it’s a “K” sound, no soundex search will help you.

Back in the good old days, you would search for Giuseppe and it would not find your grandfather. You would try Guiseppe, then Joseph, and then Joe before finally finding the right record, under “jos.” of all things! Can somebody explain to me why “Jno” was short for “John”? By one whole letter. Did the poor clerk get tired writing a big word like “John”???

Oh, yeah, I forgot! You MUST type a surname, or at least a partial surname. You could not just search for everyone in Chicago named “Cunegunde.” You had to put her surname in the search. The problem is that you never found her marriage and you don’t know what her surname was.

Slowly, the two best genealogy web sites (in my humble opinion), and, have improved the way they search for names, far beyond the soundex. They look for letters that sound alike as well as look alike, even for the first letter, which was the primary limitation of using soundex. They also now deal with ethnic variations on first names. A search for Giuseppe will bring up Joe, Joseph, Gius. and Jose and other non-Italian variants. Giovanni finds both Jno and John!

And now the searches use more fields, too. You can search for anyone named Russo; too many matches. So search for Russo born in Italy; okay, it eliminated Chicago-born Russo but still too many. Russo, born in Italy, between 1890 and 1900. That knocked it down quite a bit. Russo born in Italy 1890-1900 living in Cleveland. Aha! Only two of them!

These improvements in search technique make it easier for us to find records on the first try than ever before, and other sites are using more of these techniques as well.

The tricky part of searching these huge genealogy sites is that you can check every database all at the same time, which can be helpful if you have no idea where someone lived. But it can also give you too many hits if the name is too common. Geez I don’t need a hundred different Rossas from Argentina in 1642! Lucky person who connects to those records, but I don’t. I need Rossi from Italy living in Cleveland.

I have found that when you know definitively where someone lived, it is better to search only the data from that area. This eliminates all those other records that clutter up the search results. So if I am looking for a Chicago death certificate, I don’t do a general search from the main home page. I worm my way through the menus to get to JUST the Chicago deaths and then do my search.

The difference is that when you search all databases at once, you can try to full in certain fields, but they might not give you every field to fill in. You may want to limit your search to the Rossi children of Giuseppe Rossi and Antonia Bisconia. The main search page might not allow you to search by parent because not every database has the parents listed. If you worm your way to the Chicago deaths, the fields you can search are more specific to that one database.

In the past 48 hours, I found two major items that I have been trying to locate for the better part of 20 years. They involved people with very common names, and no matter how I searched, I got far too many hits and I had no way to be sure the one I wanted was there. I was able to search using parents and spouse. The searches of the “good ol’ days” would have not allowed me to search this way, and every name would’ve had to be spelled perfectly. Instead of just getting a first name and a surname spelled correctly, now I have to spell the father’s first and last name, mother’s first and maiden last name, and spouse’s first and maiden last name. Good luck with that!

I decided to search for birth, marriage or death records of all children of a particular couple. I didn’t even use their first names. I just searched for anyone who was the child of Keiser and Talbert. I did not find census records because they don’t record the maiden name. But I did find the death of a daughter in 1929 aged 70, in Cleveland. (Maybe she lived near the Rossis!) The informant of her death certificate was none other than her brother, who I’d searched for over the past 20 years. Now I have him tied to a city, far from where he lived when he was part of my family. So I limited my search to George Keiser in Cleveland, or Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Having eliminated all the thousands of other George Keisers in America and Germany and elsewhere, I found two. One was 18 years old. The other was 75 and was the right one.

You might need to use a combination of searches to find your missing relative. Remember to use the general search from the home screen if you have no idea where someone lived. Use the specific search of a single database when you have it narrowed down.

Write to Dan at and please put Fra Noi in the subject line. Let me know if you have any success stories like mine. Thanks!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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