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So Your Family name is Smith? Or is it Smyth, Smythe, Smithy . . .

Most family historians realize early on that there were variations in the spelling of a particular surname, but the variations may be more extensive than one realizes.


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Genealogy research gives a whole new meaning to the question, "what's in a name."

I related to our readers in another article that I've actually had a person tell me that a particular family line could not be hers because "we don't spell our name that way."  I reiterate, it is extremely important for genealogy researchers to understand that when tracing family trees, variant spellings are the rule, not the exception.

Most family historians realize early on that there were variations in the spelling of a particular surname, but the variations may be more extensive than one realizes. Because English wasn't standardized until after Webster's first English dictionary, people often spelled names simply the way they sounded. In addition, many of our ancestors were illiterate and could neither read nor write. As a result, immigration documents as well as deeds, wills, and census records, etc., were recorded with whichever spelling a particular recorder was familiar. And even that was not consistent. I have seen wills and other court records where the family surname was spelled at least three different ways on one piece of paper.

It is important for any family researcher to try to come up with as many variations for their family surname as possible. According to Jeane Eddy Westin, who wrote Finding Your Roots, there are 13 ways to spell Smith, 31 ways to spell Snyder and 37 ways to spell Baer.

One of the surnames on my family tree is Kephart. How many variations on that name could their be? More than you can imagine, and I'll bet a few more than even I can think of. I've found documents spelling this same family line as: Kephart, Gephart, Gephardt, Gebhart, Gebhardt, Capehart, Capeheart, Keephart, Kephurt, Keepheart, and Kiphart. These variations came from all kinds of sources including land records, census records, birth and death certificates.

To top it all off, family historians now make use of the internet to aid their research; so now, more than ever, you need to take into consideration the possibility of transcription errors--those typos even the best transcribers can miss. Whether you are searching the internet, or reviewing a microfilm copy of a census record, be prepared with as many spellings of your surname as you can calculate. Think of sounds when trying to calculate the various spellings. Any word with a hard gee sound, as in George, could also be spelled with a J. The eff sound, as in Frank, may be spelled with a ph or vice versa. My great-grandmother, Safira Davis, has been found as Sophia, Sophronia, and Sofee. The sound of the letter T can be misinterpreted by a census taker as a D. Maybe your ancestor named Tolar is listed as Dollar.

If you are looking at transcribed records, try to imagine what alphabetical letters a person might misread when working with hand-written documents. For example: I have found in my own research that the letters P and R are often confused. Surnames that have the letters M and N are easily confused. Grandpa Homer Smith may be listed as Honer, or even Honor Smith. In short, consider the possibilities.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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