How do I call thee? Let me count the names…

If you’ve started researching your family tree you’ve likely run into the following scenario:

Things are going great in the 1940 Census, the 1930 Census, the 1920 Census, and probably the 1910 Census. But you’ve noticed that the further that you go back the more bizarre the spellings of your ancestors’ names become. You’ve been able to come up with some alternate spellings and have located them in the 1900 and maybe the 1880 (cause don’t forget, the 1890 Census is toast – the burnt kind) Censuses. But it seems like they just fell off the face of the planet for the 1870 Census. And while you recognize that maybe they were census dodgers you know that they were here in the States way back to the Mayflower times because your great grandma said so.

Where are they?

I’ve got news for you… They’re probably there, but their name is so unrecognizable that you might have just missed them. And while this is frustrating, it’s just a fact of history.

Why So Many Name Variations?

In an era when your name is equivalent to your identity, it’s often difficult for new researchers to understand why there seem to be an infinite number of name variations for a single individual. And why you can’t even catch a break when you’re looking at legal documents. After all, these days your legal name is your legal name, right?

A Largely Illiterate Society

Plain and simple, much of society was illiterate until the 1800s. When census enumerators and clerks of the court asked their name, the spelling was executed phonetically. Depending on the scribe you could end up with any possibility of different spellings for even the simplest of names. What complicates things more is the immigrant nature of our fledgling country. With an amalgamation of different nationalities what one person here’s phonetically could be completely different than what another person’s name really was! And when the only literate person was the scribe, no one challenged him!

Human Error Hundreds of Years After the Fact

With its roots as field of hobbyists, genealogy has often relied on volunteers to transcribe, compile, and index records. These tireless advocates give of their time freely and we should all stop to applaud them for their efforts. And because beggars can’t be choosers we all need to understand one thing right now.

People. Make. Mistakes.

*gasp* I know. It’s hard to take in. But since we’ve all seen those court record books and the smudgy pages of census records it’s completely understandable how people might make a mistake here and there when indexing and transcribing. And with each error, we get yet another possible name variation.

Names Galore! Now What?

Now that we’ve established that you can expect to find your ancestors by different names, what are we going to do about it?

  1. Use a less restrictive search. Make sure that any tick-boxes for “Search Exactly” on the name field are removed. This will use a “sounds like” search or a search using the SOUNDEX. (Stay tuned to our beginning series for a post on the SOUNDEX and genealogy in the Olden Days.)
  2. Use the WeRelate.org Name Variant Database for suggestions. This database has given name and surname variants, and offers a list of computer generated suggestions as well as confirmed suggestions by other researchers.
  3. Expand your search to include wild cards. Many databases now rely on typical Boolean search techniques which will allow you to use a wild card placeholder for a single letter or string of letters. For example: if you were searching for the surname Smith but you weren’t quite sure how they spelled it you could enter something like “Sm*th*” into the search to indicate that you want to receive all results that match that pattern. Make sure you check the help files for each database to confirm that their searching allows wild cards and what format the while card should appear in.
  4. Remove silent letters, or maybe add them! When I was a kid, I thought that “Wh” was a lot like “Qu”. Where ever you saw a W it must be followed by an H. This was particularly challenging for words like “well” and “sandwich.” And it could have been challenging for scribes too! Try taking out silent letters or adding silent letters to your ancestor’s surname and see if that changes your search results. For instance: Smith becomes Smithe or Smythe and Christianson becomes Cristianson. If you’re Irish/Scottish be sure to try Mc and Mac!

Happy searching!! I’m sure your family tree’s limbs have just gotten a whole lot broader!

Leave a Reply