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I take no responsibility

The Legal Genealogist is not to blame.

I had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

I take no responsibility at all of any kind for the horror that is known as the Russell Indexing System.

Russell Index

I am deep in the weeds of tracing the history of the house I live in. No, I really have no idea why I started this. Needed a distraction from the real world, I suppose.

But here’s the problem.

I live in a state where I do no research whatsoever. I live in New Jersey — and not a single one of my ancestors ever lived in this state or anywhere else in the north, for that matter.1 I’m far more accustomed to researching in the records of Virginia and Alabama and Texas than I am in dealing with records north of the Mason-Dixon line.

I am so used to finding all of the deeds of grantors or grantees named — say — Russell all together in the index under the letter R, in alphabetical order so all of the Russells are together, and immediately following the Russels and before the Russelts — and almost always in simple chronological order: a 1795 deed before a 1796 deed. Sometimes the indexing system will record the first names in columns so it’s easy to skim down and find all the deeds to or from Robert rather than the deeds to or from James.

So you can color me absolutely unamused to find that the Recorder of Deeds in my county in New Jersey uses the Russell Indexing System for land and probate records.

That system is “a popular indexing system used in many courthouses around the country. It is similar to the Soundex system, in that it groups surnames based on certain key letters. The index includes a chart in which you choose a column based on the surname’s key letter and a row based on the first initial of the given name to determine the page number on which the individual is indexed.”2

Or, as the FamilySearch Wiki explains, “This index is not based on the first letter of the surname. Instead, it is based on key letters (L, M, N, R, and T) that follow the initial letter of the surname. For this reason, is sometimes called the LMNRT or L-M-N-R-T index. Surnames Camp, Chapman, Coffman, and Cushman would appear under the key letter ‘M;’ Carr, Coker, Creecy, and Cubberly would appear under the key letter ‘R.’ First names are arranged alphabetically within each key letter. The entries are then arranged chronologically within each combination of key letter and first name.”3

It’s the brainchild — if you want to call it that — of what began as the Siegel-Russell Indexing Company and later just the Russell Indexing Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, somewhere back in the early 1900s. At least that’s the first reference I can find to the system anywhere.4

And it’s ridiculous.5

You wanna know how ridiculous? Say I’m looking for deeds granted by anybody named Bartlett. And I don’t know whether the grantor will be John or Mary or Robert. In my county, I’m going to first find the grantor index with the B entries. And there’s more than one roll of microfilm with the B entries. To find Bartlett, I can’t simply go to the alphabet for BA and find Bartlett. Oh, no. I have to drop out the A and use R as the key letter. So I’m looking under B for R.

But if the first name of the grantor starts with A, it’s in section 14. If B, it’s section 24. If C it’s 34. The letters H and I are combined in section 84; K and L in section 104; N and O in section 134 and so on down to W through Z which are combined in section 174.

So there are 17 sections where the entries might be found for the same last name and different first names. John would be in section 94, Mary in section 114 and Robert in section 144.

Got that?

We’re not done yet. Let’s use Mary as our example for a minute. Because it’s not just as easy as turning to section 114 and working through it alphabetically. Oh no…

First we have to find section 114. And all I can say is, thank heavens for digitized records, because every section has a different number of pages, and turning pages to get to a section that doesn’t begin until image 971 of 1056 images — ouch.

And when we finally find section 114, it’s going to divide the entries even further. So it begins by adding a second layer of key letters — and remember those are L M N R and T.

Let’s say there’s no key letter after the R — a surname like Brace for example. Those are listed first with an indication of what page in the section has that surname. Then the surnames with the key letter L — Brill, for example, followed by those with the key letter M, like Brum, and so forth. So for Bartlett, the key letter after R is T, so we go to the R T entries and…

And not even those are in alphabetical order. That section begins with the name Britt, followed by the name Braitsch, then Bright, then Bretow, then Britton. Because they sneak in — without telling you — a third level of key letter. Bartlett has an L after the R and the T. It ends up being the 32nd entry of the R T entries (and third of the R T L entries), on page 62 of section for R, where that surname can be found.

And if we want to find entries for Robert Bartlett rather than Mary? Well, the first roll of microfilm of the B entries ends with page 11 of section 116, and the R given names are in section 144. So we can’t even find all the Bartletts on the same roll of microfilm.


It is not my fault.

I am not to blame.

I had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

I take no responsibility at all of any kind for the horror that is known as the Russell Indexing System.

Just putting that on the record.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Not my fault!,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 23 Sep 2020).


  1. Okay, so my parents did, and my paternal grandparents settled in Chicago when they emigrated from Germany. But those are way too recent for me to count them as “ancestors” even if they technically are.
  2. Kimberly Powell, The Everything Family Tree Book: Research And Preserve Your Family History (Adams Media eBook: 2006).
  3. FamilySearch Research Wiki (, “United States Index Systems,” rev. 1 Aug 2020.
  4. See generally “Proposals: Official–Allegheny County,” Pittsburgh Press, 6 Nov 1908, p.27, col. 8; digital images, ( : accessed 23 Sep 2020).
  5. Yeah yeah yeah. I know some of you think it’s wonderful. You’re weird.
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