RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 8:  

Why U Kan't Find Yer Ancestors
 Misspeld Knames ~— A Commun Probblum for Reeserchors 

Ellis Island:  It's a myth about name changes there

Names were rarely changed intentionally at Ellis Island. The majority of passengers were detailed on the ship's manifest before the vessel left the port of departure. The purser or ship's officer was familiar with the name and ethnicity of the many passengers who typically used the port, and the ship visited the port several times each year. The captain and the medical officer swore affidavits to the accuracy of each group of lists, with 1 to 30 people in a group. On arrival in the port of New York, the U. S. inspectors boarded each vessel and examined the manifest and tickets of all classes of passengers. For those passengers taken to Ellis Island, immigration officials reviewed the questions and answers with each person. The inspectors developed systems to prevent the misspelling of names. To handle difficult names, interpreters were on hand who could understand more than 30 languages from Albanian to Yiddish . . . A few immigrants requested a name change, as a new beginning. However, historical records and individual testimonies indicate that most name changes occurred during the naturalization process, not at Ellis Island. ~ from Ellis Island and the Making of America, by Jayare Roberts, A.G., M.L.S., Genealogical Journal, Volume 23, Numbers 2 and 3, 1995, pp. 79-80.

American Names/Declaring Independence
The Great Hang-up: Spelling of Names

If you have been unable to find your ancestors in census and other compiled indexes, the problem may be misreading of the surnames rather than omissions.

Leap over the name spelling hang-up. Your ancestors may have always spelled or signed their name a certain way, but you can bet that those who actually recorded their names ~ census takers, county clerks and tax collectors ~ spelled it in various ways. How often have you had your own surname misspelled? Think about it. To insist your name has always been spelled a particular way is to set yourself up for defeat in genealogical research.

According to William Thorndale, in The Source, "An enormous amount of genealogical research fails because people do not take simple precautions in searching for spelling variants."

As a professional researcher, Thorndale emphasizes to his clients how important spelling variants are. "I practically plead for these researchers to always check all forms of the first vowel when searching census indexes," he said. But many of us ignore this wise advice. Thorndale also warns about such spelling problems as:
Calligraphic look-alikes: Daniel and David
Phonetic equivalents: Sincere for St. Cyr
Translation equivalents: Carpenter for Zimmerman
Truncates: Fitzjurrell for Fitzgerald
Other spelling irregularities such as Cowper pronounced as Cooper
Some spelling variations include a different initial letter or the first vowel, or can be hidden by an "h" as the second letter. If I only looked at "Go" in indices, I would miss all the "Gho" spellings of Gormley. These quirks of spelling can throw surnames into unexpected places in the indices. Occasionally, the problem is due to a computer's placement of names due to spacing. That is, you often will find MacDonald and Mac Donald listed as different surnames. And, don't forget to look for McDonald.

Surnames beginning with a vowel or an "H" should be sought under ALL vowels plus "H," at least until one becomes familiar with spelling variants that frequently occur of a particular surname. Example: Autry, Awtrey, Autery, Hawtrey, and Ottery.

The "H" slips in and out of words in disconcerting fashion. Your Allard ancestor may appear in an index (or a record) as Alhurd, so be especially alert about spellings that put an "h" after plausible initial letters. The letter "R" is a semi-vowel within words and occasionally appears in unexpected places with no particular pattern.

Many a researcher has missed their ancestor in records due to spelling oversights. Watch for letter transpositions. These are common in computerized indices and compilations prepared from typed records. When checking indexes in books, pay attention to how the book was compiled. Many genealogical books contain several indexes in a single volume, often arranged by the time period of the particular records involved. If you only check the index at the back of a book, you may miss your ancestors.

Many of us have surnames that differ somewhat from the ones our immigrant ancestors brought to America. In many cases, it is just a slight spelling variation of the original name ~ not a name change. In others, the name we use may be an anglicized version, and in still others, descendants have wound up with a completely different surname. Most North American researchers discover their surname has variant spellings or has been changed in some way. This could have occurred for such reasons as:

Necessity. Most typewriters and typesetting equipment used by North Americans could not cope with the diacritical markings used above or below certain letters found in several European languages, or the logographs seen in Chinese. Similarly, names written originally in Hebrew, Cyrillic, Arabic and a number of other alphabets had to be transliterated into the ones used in this the U.S. or Canada, for example.

Inability to spell or carelessness. Many immigrants could not spell (in English) her or his name. So when they gave their name to county clerks, enumerators, etc., that person wrote the name as it sounded to him.

Difficulty in pronouncing or spelling a name. Some names, particularly Polish, are difficult for most Americans and Canadians to spell or pronounce. A Polish immigrant named Dzeckaeiar may have simplified the name to Decker.

Desire to break with the past. North America, Australia and other localities were a new beginning for many of our ancestors, and some had no desire to retain anything, including their name, that reminded them of an unhappy past in the old country.

Disagreement with relatives. Some family members changed their names completely, or the spelling slightly, to avoid being associated with a disliked relative or neighbor with the same name. Many family traditions claim such instances to explain how the particular spelling of their surname came in existence. However, such stories are not always accurate.

Dislike of the original name. Many Jewish people, in particular, disliked the names that may have been forced on them in the old country.

Fear of bad treatment. Some of our immigrant ancestors had fled from countries where they were mistreated, and thought a change of name might avert further problems in the new country. During World War I, many German-Americans changed or altered their names because they feared discrimination and maltreatment.

Getting rid of a semantic objection. Some names, such as Lipschitz or Gelbfisch, seemed humorous to Americans, and such names were often changed.

Desire for material success. Second- or third-generation Americans sometimes changed their names because they felt a "wrong" name might prevent them from becoming successful or getting a particular job.

Whatever the reasons for a name change, the genealogist must learn to look for all possible spellings and transliterations.

Basically, most Western surnames come from one of four types:

Patronymics ~ The father's given name with "son" or an "s" added to it.
Place Names ~ Words that identified where a person lived or came from.
Occupational Names ~ What a person did for a living. Many of these are based upon medieval occupations.
Nicknames ~ Names based on a person's characteristics, either personality or appearance. A small percentage of us have names derived from nicknames of ancestors who lived many centuries ago.

Under what other spellings might your ancestors be hiding in the records?

Asian names generally do not follow the standard Western patterns. For example, Chinese names are almost always one-syllable words that may be taken after the name of an old ruling family. In Japan, names were created more recently out of two unrelated, but often poetic words. Jewish names sometimes are made up acronyms ~ abbreviations that combine a number of words.

Beware of the fallacy of a practice common in many families ~ that of assuming that if the name is not spelled in a certain way it cannot belong to the same family. Don't pass over important genealogical records because the name happens to be spelled with an a rather than an e, with an ie rather than a y, or with one n rather than with two.

Be extremely careful in use of indexes. Consider every possible spelling of the name sought. Local dialects and foreign accents often make a significant difference. Even the pronunciation, and hence the spelling, of an English-derived name may be quite different in Massachusetts than it is in Alabama, Quebec, Sydney, or Liverpool.

Not Myne ~ It's Not Spelled Rite

A professional genealogist relates the story of how she worked on a line for a client for more than 20 hours and found the client's father as a child in the 1920 census, and then located the grandparents in the passenger lists. Additionally, the researcher was able to extend the pedigree back another four generations to the middle 1800s in Italy.

Excited to have such good news to share, the professional genealogist quickly typed up the report and mailed it to the client. Days went by and then the phone rang. It was the client who told the researcher:

"You've got the wrong family."

And what was the client's reason for thinking this? Two of the children in the 1920 census were recorded with nicknames instead of with their given names.

This is a common scenario in the genealogical world. Verbal arguments sometimes erupt over the spelling of a surname. People will insist that their surname has always been spelled a particular way ~ even when the records indicate otherwise. They foolishly will refuse to accept a lineage with a different spelling and will overlook their ancestors in records because of this surname spelling hang-up.

Toss out everything Miss Jones taught you in elementary school about surname spelling. It doesn't matter in genealogy. In addition to the fact that earlier generations, prior to the late 19th century, really didn't worry as much about spelling, transcribers did not always read a record accurately. Whenever you are working with indexes, it is important to look up any possible variant spelling that you can think of. You might even want to get wacky with a pen. Take a piece of paper and start writing the surname in script. See how messy or different you can make it and then see what letters it brings to mind. Chances are you are likely to find a few of those "variants" in indexes.

Finally, to give you an idea of how little spelling counts, a land deed for one ancestor has his name spelled three different ways. In his will, the man's name is spelled four ways. One surname has been found spelled 24 different ways in the same locality, and listed under three different letters of the alphabet ~ A, E and I. Would you think to look for a Shoemaker family under "J"? That's how some wound up in the 1900 Soundex, the S being read as "Jh."

Surname Spellings and Legalities

Idem Sonans.**
This means that in order to establish legal proof of relationship from documentary evidence it is not necessary for the name to be spelled absolutely accurately if, as spelled, it conveys to the ear, when pronounced in the accepted ways, a sound practically identical to the correctly spelled name as properly pronounced.

** Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (2nd edition). Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990. p. 32.

Ellis Island

On arrival in the port of New York

American Names/Declaring Independence

The Source

Genealogical Publishing Co.

Do You Ear What I Ear?

Michael John Neill

Changing Immigrant Names

The Name Game

Naming Patterns: Tips for Finding Your Ancestors

Irish Place Names and Family Names

Dutch Names: Helpful Hints Regarding Surnames: Place Identifiers as Surnames

Swedish Naming Patterns

In the Very Beginning

Surname Origin List: More than 2,000 surnames

Cyndi's List: Names