What’s in a name #2: Getting to grips with the misspelling of names

There is another fun aspect of searching for your ancestors in historical records: the misspelling of his or her name.

Before the advent of electronic census processing, before the advent of the automobile, census takers of old had to do their job on horseback or on foot.  They had to take the census details of every household within the county or counties they were responsible for.  I can only imagine they had deadlines to meet as part of the process. So I don’t entirely blame them for mistakes made with names. However, Mistakes were made and it is one of the fundamental challenges for people tracing their ancestry using historical documents like census returns, tax lists, marriage records and death records.

It would appear, from what I’ve seen, that names are spelt phonetically.  I would also hazard a guess that the ethnic origins of the census taker influenced the phonetic spelling of names. There is then the matter of the regional accent of the person providing his or her details to the census taker. So all manner of weird, wonderful and downright bizarre spellings have been consigned to posterity through digitised records. When searching historical records as part of your family research, you should also search for every conceivable phonetic variant you can think of.

For instance, take the surname Roane. This appears as Roane, Roan, Ruan(e) and Rone in various historical records.  It also appears as Rhone – and for this, I would guess that a person of Germanic origins took the census details.  I have found the same individual with his name spelt differently in four consecutive census returns: Thomas Roane, Thomas Roan, Thomas Rhone and Thomas Ruane.

The surname Sheffey has appeared as: Sheffey, Sheffie, Sheffy, Scheffe, Scheffey, Shiffy and Schoffe in various records.  Bearing in mind that the first two generations of Sheffeys in Virginia had strong German accents (which was documented by their contemporaries), the phonetic spellings of the name is understandable.

The story doesn’t change with first names.  Take the name Josephine, for instance. I have seen this name spelt: Josiphine, Josaphine and Josifine.

Spellings of first names can also be interchangeable.  For instance, a few popular instances include:

  • Sally, Salley and Sallie
  • Milly and Millie
  • Betty and Bettie
  • Rachael and Rachel
  • Catherine and Katherine

Double first names also present a different challenge when searching historical documents:

  • Mary Jane can appear as Mary, Mary J or Jane
  • John Paul can appear as John, John P or Paul
  • Sally Mae can appear as Sally, Sally M, May or Mae (don’t forget Sally can be spelt differently too!)

And when searching for first generation immigrant ancestors, it’s worth bearing in mind they may have given an English version of their name (for instance, John instead of Johann, George instead of Georg, Catherine instead of Caterina, etc).

Last, but by no means least, is the habit previous generations had of giving their middle names as first names.  So the name John Thurman Butler may appear in historical records as Thurman Butler.

These are some of the factors you should bear in mind when doing family research.  I guarantee you will come across one of these pointers at least once!

One thought on “What’s in a name #2: Getting to grips with the misspelling of names

  1. Also, I’ve Heard Many Poor African Americans Weren’t Educated And Could Not Spell The Names But Rather Sound Out What It Sounded Like. I’ve Had Many Relatives Who I Still Can’t Find Since The Names Weren’t Spelled Or Sounded Common Even For Back Then. Like Grenny And Gertie And Farybelle And Such Other Uncommon Names. On One Census There Was A Mahwilly, But I Saw Her Obituary A Few Years Ago When She Died And Her Name Was Actually Mahalia. Those Two Names Are A Small Bit Of A Stretch From Each Other. How Am I Supposed To Find Missing Relatives When Their Parents Didn’t Even Know How To Spell Their Names And I Have To Get An Edward Out Of A Mispelled Efferson On A Census?

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