We all know what nicknames are. Often, they are simply altered versions of a person’s real name. Patrick or Patricia becomes Pat; James becomes Jimmy or Jim; or Richard becomes Rich, Rick, Dick, Ricky, Dickie, or even Dickey. Sometimes a nickname is a variant that has evolved over time. Dorothy becomes Dot or Dottie; Henry becomes Hank; or, Elizabeth becomes Bette, Betty, Bess, Liz, Lizzie, or Bep. Margaret is a name with many variations: Margie, Margo, Meg, Peggy, Peg, and a number of other forms.
My own research has included any number of these naming variations. For example, my great-grandmother had a forename of Ansibelle, and there are no U.S. federal censuses that list her christened name at all. In fact, her first name was never listed the same way twice. The variations included Annie, Nancy, Nannie, and Ancie. Her middle name was Penelope, and that name has been passed on and been reused in the family. In its more recent incarnations, Penelope has become Penny, Nep, and Neppie. If you encountered the name â€œNeppieâ€ on a census document and didn’t know the real name it represented, what would you have guessed?
Perhaps the document type most frequently used by genealogists is the census. Put yourself in the place of an assistant federal marshal in 1860, riding or walking about and filling out census forms. You are performing a function called enumeration for the government, and you probably had no idea that what you were doing would be looked at 146 years in the future! You are simply trying to visit every household, take down the names of every resident, ask the questions you had been given, and fill out the answers on the forms: population schedules, slave schedules, agricultural schedules, manufacturing schedules, mortality schedules, and a social statistics schedule. You had a job and a deadline and that was that. It’s no wonder that abbreviations and perhaps diminutive forms of names were written on the forms by the enumerators. They also wrote precisely what they were told. Who can blame them if they were given an unusual name and, asking the respondent how it was spelled, was told that the respondent could not read or write, much less spell the name?
I spent some time recently with a friend poring over a number of census documents from various eras. We puzzled over what some of the abbreviations for names might have been. We saw Jno.Â and Jhn. and wondered whether the name was John, Johnathan, or Jonathan. Nat. could have been Nathaniel or Nathan, or even something else. A particularly perplexing entry appeared as Hy., and it was not until we found other documents for the same individual in the same area during the same era that we were able to determine that the abbreviation stood for Henry. (It might have stood for Hyram or some other name, but we could not be sure without checking elsewhere.)
Our ancestors were not as literate as we are today, and therefore cannot really be blamed for misspellings of their names. How many times have you seen a document signed by an ancestor with his or her X? People also changed the spelling of their name(s) over time, and even the way they signed it if they were literate. Another of my ancestors, William Whitefield, suddenly changed the spelling of his surname to Whitfield (omitting the first â€œeâ€), beginning at the time of his third marriage. This was really confusing because it appeared that there were two men with similar surnames, different wives, and different children. Therefore, my great-grandmother Morgan became a big challenge to locate under the maiden surname Whitefield, when in fact she was the youngest child of the third marriage, and spelled her surname as Whitfield.
I always urge people to learn how to â€œmisspellâ€ the surnames they are researching. I’ve spent a lot of time perusing Soundex microfilm and using the Soundex option in the Ancestry databases. While it may seem like more work to look at names that definitely are not ones that you are researching, original spelling errors and variations may suddenly appear to you as possibilities to be explored. You never know who made the error: your ancestor, the person who created the document, a transcriber, an indexer, or another researcher. Therefore, you need to be alert to spelling variations at all levels.
In addition to the surname spelling variations that we’ve had to deal with in our research, it’s important to also be aware of the use of forenames, middle names, nicknames, diminutives, and simple initials. Investing the time to examine all the possible variations is essential when you are searching for records of â€œdifficult ancestorsâ€ if you don’t want to miss an important record. By exploring all the possibilities, you may just find that your ancestor was there all along… just hiding behind a misspelling.
Visit George’s website at http://ahaseminars.com for information about his company, speaking engagements, and presentation topics. You can also listen to George and Drew Smith’s “Genealogy Guys” podcast at http://genealogyguys.com.
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