Tips from the Pros: Switched Names?

from Michael John Neill

There are many ways a relative’s name can get tangled up in a record’s index. In addition to spelling, phonetic, and transcription errors, there is always the chance that the creator of the original record switched the first and last names of the individual mentioned in the record.

Felix Navigato was a thirty-seven-year-old real estate broker serving as a census taker for the 1930 census in Chicago, Illinois. On 23 April 1930, as a part of his enumeration duties, he visited a boarding house at 415 East 115th Street in Chicago. Most of the residents were Greek immigrants; Navigato was an Italian-American. The possibility that some of the boarders may not have been home at the time of Navigato’s visit increases the chance that something was reported incorrectly.

One of the residents at the boarding house was Panagiotis Verikios. Likely due to the language issues, he is enumerated with the first name of Verikios and the last name of Panagiotis. Locating him with online indexes took some time because of the name switch.

If your ancestor cannot be found in an index, consider switching the first and last names in search boxes and other indexes. Such switches do not happen very often but when they do your search can be frustrated.

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15 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Switched Names?

  1. On the same theme … people quite frequently chose not to use their first names, but a middle name. If there was a tradition of calling the eldest son John, then this could lead to confusion – imagine calling everyone in for dinner! So John the younger might use his middle name, Edward, and eventually stick with it. Mother might have thought that Algernon was a lovely name, but her grown-up son might prefer to use his middle name, George. The there are the Henrys who preferred to be known as Harry etc. If at first you don’t succeed, try something else!

  2. In looking for a death certificate I kept coming up empty. I new my grandmother was there and just could not find her. Until I click the website’s help and it said to search the first few letters of the name in case the name was misspelled. Upon doing so there she was,they had spelled her last name with a “q” not a “g”.

  3. To follow this to its logical conclusion, be sure to enter your surnames in the “first name” blank on the Ancestry search form, leaving the surname blank empty. I was amazed when I did this in that I discovered some important family records that were not showing up otherwise.

  4. Another tedious suggestion is scrolling through the whole area. I can’t tell you how many times I have found someone with the name just simply extracted incorrectly. Often those extracting the names are not familiar with local names, so they just do the best they can. I just found Mathew Honeycut yesterday indexed Nathan Honngent! And PLEASE ALWAYS leave your corrections in the corrections and comments area! You just might save someone like me months of fruitless searching!

  5. My experience with ‘switched names’ is that it can occur even when language is not the issue. I couldn’t locate ‘Brainard ALLISON’, my husband’s second cousin, once removed, in the 1920 census. Sure enough, when I switched the names in the search boxes, there he was as ‘Brainard, Allison’, with wife, ‘Brainard, Eveline M.’ (Evaline Mary). So, when first names sound like last names and last names sound like first names, switching them in the search boxes and other indexes can be beneficial.

  6. In the 1920 Federal Census for Liberty County, I find that about 8 of every ten names has a transcription error. Because I ran a chain of title (i.e. an abstract from Spanish Land Grant forward to current day) of many tracts of land in Liberty County from the County Clerk’s Deed Records for several years, I knew the actual names listed on that census.

    In order to locate my subject people, I reviewed every page of that county’s 1920 census within the past week.

    Apparently the transcriptionist was unfamiliar with the names, and while the census-takers’ handwritings are a bit “flowery” on some pages, most names are not too difficult to read. I have added alternate names for those entries where I have personally seen both the Deed Records and the Tax Records of Liberty County, Texas.

    This occurrence should alert all researchers to try alternate spellings on their name searches.

    Mary L. Bell
    Temple, Texas

  7. I could not find my paternal great-grandmother’s parents because she was an orphan. We knew nothing of them and nothing was ever told to us by my grandparents or parents. I only knew her last name. In looking thru the census over the years she stated her mother was born in Kentucky. So I looked over all the family trees of that name and found one woman who was from Kentucky. However on the year of the birth of my great-grandmother it was stated her name was Charles not Charlotte. It dawned on me that perhaps the census taker misunderstood that she was a girl. I emailed the gentleman who published the family tree and lo and behold he wrote me back and checked a Vermillion Cty. Indiana book he had and he said I was right! Mystery solved. She was born 1867 and her mother died 1868 and father died 1873, thus she became an orphan. My family is amazed. Thank you cousin John!!!!!!Check the family trees and email the originators of the tree.

  8. I agree with this article. My name Allen Lawrence is often comfused as Lawrence Allen. I sat in a Doctor’s office one day and they called people back by their last name so when they called Mr. Allen, I just sat there and waited for them to call Mr. Lawrence. I sat there for a while until there were only women in the office and the nurse asked was I Mr Allen. I could have been out of there an hour earlier.

  9. This is a great tip. My ancesters lived in a very isolated area and the same families keept intermarrying. This led to a person to be refered to with the addition of his/her’s father’s first name, before their actual last name. Another practise that compounded the problem was that mother’s seemed to always want the child to have her maiden name as a middle name. This led to confusion by the census taker, unless he was from one of these original families too.

  10. In my case, in the 1930 census, It is reported I have a sister.
    The error is I have no sister. My brother Michael, is recorded as Martha. This is more like an error on the census takers part. Is there any way this can be corrected?

  11. When my g-grandfather could not be located on the 1900 census index in a town in which I thought he might be living, I checked page by page. Sure enough, Maximilian Jaeger was listed as “Maxwell, Jagers.”

  12. Dear Census takers (more genealogists should volunteer to be consientious census enumerators!) and extraction/indexers – Daniel written in cursive can be transcribed and typed up as David. Watch out!

  13. I have been dealing with a “switched” name that you did not mention. My father-in-law’s name (Mortensen) is not his real name. His father died before he was born. Mother married shortly after his birth to a man named Mortensen. My FIL was never adopted by this man but always used the name Mortensen. Dad’s mother died when he was 12 years old. During WWII, when he needed security clearance, he could find no birth certificate. The County Clerk said, “I’ll fix it so you get clearance,” and he did. Dad’s real name was Cunningham. So I am searching Cunninham rather than Mortensen since there was no adoption.

  14. I had a difficult time finding my Dutch ancestor, born in Zeeland, The NL, because he went in the US by the last name Giffler, which my grandmother said was the way Immigration spelled it. She had a photograph of him on which she had written a name, Kuvalier. I could not find him –except in the US 1870 census as Giffler–until I tried soundex for Kuvalier and Giffler–from there I found a Kiefler family tree with Keuvelaar as the Dutch name and matches with all my grandmother’s stories, obituaries, grave stones, etc. I went to GENLIAS and the Zeeuws Archief and found the matches to my grandmother’s stories and other photos and notes she had made I needed to confirm my ancestor.
    Note: I also used my ability with languages to try Dutch possible pronunciations of Giffler/Kiefler, to get to Keuvelaar, etc., BUT not if you do not know a couple of languages well, best not to try this intuitive method.

  15. Years ago, when I first queried my mother about family history, she had said my great-great grandmother’s maiden name was UNGER (as noted in her in obituary in my mother’s scrapbook.) More recently, when I actually started researching my genealogy seriously, I went through the same scrapbook very carefully and found two different obituaries for my great-great grandfather which both mentioned the MUNGERS. Previously I had hit a brick wall at that point. Other information I found confirmed the “M” and I actually found my great-great grandparents in “The Munger Book”, which was published in 1915! One little letter can make a big difference!

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