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What is in a Name? Spelling Issues in Genealogy


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Prepared by: Celia Lewis
Word Count: 633 (approx.)
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TIP: Assume wild and crazy phonetic spelling, pre-1850.

Surnames were not spelled in a standardized way until well into the 1800s in most of the Western world. As you search for your greatgrandparents or further back, you may find it very confusing to see their names spelled 'wrong' or changed from one census record to another. Definitely you will find many variant spellings a century or so ago. You need to enjoy puzzles when searching for clues to your correct ancestors!

For example, my greatgreatgrandfather was a Francis William Pettygrove, originally from the state of Maine, who moved with his wife Sophia to Port Townsend WA, and raised a passel of children. He is listed on various records as Frances, Francis W., F.W., F.Wm.; surname spelled Pettigrove, Pettigrew, Pettygrew, Petigrow. As you can imagine, if I had checked only for Francis Pettygrove, I might have missed many important records!

Another example is an ancestor Henry Luther Rice - sometimes listed as Luther, or H. Luther, or Luther H., or sometimes just Henry. On one census, his first wife had an entirely wrong name, and on another census his second wife's name wasn't listed at all - perhaps one of the older stepchildren answered the census-taker's questions! Often whoever was at home at the time of the census provided answers to the census-taker, and their memories - and spelling - may have been questionable. Another point: his surname, Rice, looked a lot like Bee a few times on records. Now what? When you find that a family is living in a particular village or township on one census, look through all the records of a following census, if you can't find them again. It could be that it was too challenging to read the census-taker's writing. On birth records, it could be that a clerk didn't hear the name clearly, so a birth record may be differently spelled than other records.

Nicknames are particularly challenging. Use all possible name varieties for a nickname, being open to unusual origins. Often a maiden name of a mother or grandmother would be used for a first or second name of a child, particularly for male children. For example, Randy could be from Randolph, Randall, Ranulf, Rand, or Ransome. Girls were often named for a mother or grandmother of either side, and sometimes given a nickname to distinguish them from a (living) relative. Betty could be from any of these names: Beth, Elizabeth, Bettina, or even Alberta. Another source of names: Jack is often from John, but could also be from Jackson. Never make assumptions about names and their spellings when you're looking for the correct ancestor's family.

By the mid-1800s spellings became more standardized, and most adults were able to read and write so could spell "correctly". In the earlier years, many people had limited knowledge of reading and writing, and they rarely filled out any forms. These days, we fill in forms every month, it seems! But it may have been a very rare occurrence for our ancestors. Certainly before 1855 I have seen "X" for signatures of some of my ancestors, on their marriage registers, for example.

Researchers with a particular surname have developed websites or family associations with detailed proven family trees. This can be a great help for the amateur genealogist in finding correct ancestors with already-detailed research sources and citations as well. Look for such helpful groups online by searching your surname plus the words 'family association'; you may find more than one of your surnames are researched in detail.

Retired from the fields of individual rehabilitation and family counseling, Celia is excited to offer quality information, resources, and services for beginners in Genealogy. Check out articles, newsletters, booklets, forms, online links and more on RootsBasic: Genealogy for Beginners.

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