The Russell Index. Just mentioning the name causes some to shudder. The skeleton key symbol emblazoned with its cryptic “l-m-n-r-t” message. The dreaded columns and rows. Letters and numbers all over the page. Noooooo! If you do research in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, among others, you are going to have to master this index. I’m here to tell you, though, folks – this is one of my favorite indexes. With just a little bit of practice, I guarantee you’ll learn to love it, too. There are different variations of this index, but each revolves around the use of five key letters that follow the first letter of a given surname.
Russell index books are organized into individual volumes, according the initial letter of a surname. You may also find volumes that combine several initial letters into one volume. For example, you might find a single volume that contains all those surnames beginning with H, I, and J. Once you have the volume in hand that contains the surname you are interested in, ignore the first letter of the surname and identify the first key letter contained within that name. The Russell system uses five key letters: L, M, N, R, and T. If I am looking for the surname “Johns,” I first select the volume that contains the “J” surnames. Next, I need to identify the first key letter in “Johns.” That key letter is “N.” Once we know the key letter, index entries are going to be organized by first letter of the given name. If the surname doesn’t contain any key letters, use the “Misc.” column. Simple enough, right?
Using the chart below, what section would contain entries for Samuel Johns?1 (answer in the footnote)
This all seems rather complicated. How can I claim this is one of my favorite indexes? While not a true “sounds-like” index, the use of key letters groups similar-sounding surnames in the same section. This makes it easier to search for alternate spellings of names, as they are all in one place. For example, if I am looking for transactions for Rueben Summers, I will find them all in section 152, regardless of whether the name is spelled “Summers,” “Sommers,” “Summer,” or “Sommer.” What if I don’t know the given name that I’m looking for– only a surname? The Russell Index simplifies that search, too. Using the index above, if I’m looking for entries for an unknown Summers, I can start at section 12, go to 22, then 32, etc. In a general index that’s organized by surname, then by first name, and then chronologically by date, you would likely have to scroll through many, many more pages to find every entry of interest.
So how does this work online with FamilySearch record collections? Many of the collections that have been digitized and put online are not indexed, and you have to browse through them similar to the way you would scroll through using the actual microfilm. Many of the films (and therefore the digitized images of that film) contain more than one volume. Therefore, the inside cover of each index book – the page that usually contains the index key- might be found anywhere within the digital collection.
*Most* collections start at the beginning of a volume, in which case it’s fairly easy to find the index key, as it is usually within the first few images of the collection. If that’s the case, be sure to note the number of the image that contains it so you can go directly back to it if necessary. I’ve also found it useful to print out a key for the Russell Index variations that I most frequently use rather than have to keep going back and forth when searching for different names; it’s a real time-saver.
Need more Russell Index practice? Use the Russell index above to look for the following folks– the first few governors of Ohio.
Just to make sure you don’t cheat and look directly at the answers, below is a Russell Index variation that uses two key letters instead of one. It works exactly the same way, but breaks the indexes down into more manageable chunks when there are lots of entries.
See? The Russell Index is NOT that scary. Take a deep breath, read the instructions, and then show Russell who is boss!