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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 8:   Why U Can't Find Your Ancestors
 Misspeld Knames — A Commun Probblem 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.

Changing Immigrant Names


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:

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:

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:


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 Mine—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."

Miscellaneous quotations from Correct Mispronunciations of Some South Carolina Names*

Buyck BIKE. Some are tempted to pronounce two syllables, BUE-ik, like the car, but in South Carolina the family name is just one, BIKE. (Neuffer, p. 23)

Horry OH-REE. The northern coastal county of Horry is named for Revolutionary Colonel Peter Horry . . . stories evidence the too-often incorrect pronunciation of Horry . . . story is of Northern visitors. With their guidebook for a walking tour of Charleston, they were looking in vain for Colonel Horry's house. Seeing an old nurse walking her little aristocratic charges along the Battery, the lead visitor sought assistance: "Pardon, could you tell us where the HOH-ri House is?" Quick was the old nurse's indignant reply: "Don't you dare talk dat way in front of dese chillun. Dis is a `spectable neighborhood. What you looking fah is over on Beresford Street." The Big Brick for years was the notorious house of prostitution on Beresford Street. . . (Sam Stoney, the Mr. Charleston of South Carolina historians, is our source for this Horry story.) (Neuffer, p.85)

Ribaut ree-Boe, ree-BAW, ree-BOTE. Ribaut Road, one of the main streets of lowcountry Beaufort, is named for the early Huguenot leader Jean Ribaut. In 1562 he established his short-lived colony Charlesfort on Parris Island in Port Royal Sound. Although ree-BAW is heard fairly often, when Kershaw Tom Peach went calling on his intended May Dowling in Beaufort, he got puzzled looks when he asked the location of ree-BAW Road; finally one of the older native folks clarified, "Some of the young ones just call it ree-BOAT, but most of us still prefer Ree-BOE." (Neuffer, p. 147)

Vanderhorst VAN DRAWS; VAN-duh HOHRST (DRAWS rhymes with sauce). Of Dutch origin, Arnoldus Vander Horst (1748-1815), Charleston planter, was a captain in the Revolution under General Francis Marion. . . The street in Charleston is pronounced VAN DRAWS. The street in Winnsboro is pronounced VAN-duh-HOHRST. (Neuffer, p. 168)

Xulu Hoo-Loo (oo as in hoop). This word is used a couple of times in the narratives of the early Spanish explorers and may be merely a variant of Xuala. However, it is taken to mean the Cherokee Territory, which encompassed the southern Appalachians, extending nearly as far south as present-day Atlanta in Georgia and extended as far east as present-day Cheraw in South Carolina. For some reason historians, if they acknowledge the term at all, tend to pronounce it Hoo-Loo, although Shoo-Loo or Zoo-Loo may be closer to what the inhabitants of the region were actually saying to those first European explorers. (Neuffer, p. 181).

* Neuffer, Claude and Irene. Correct Mispronunciations of Some South Carolina Names. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1983.


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.


Suggested Reading & References


Additional Resources


Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)