Posted by Linda Barnickel on June 27, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

Often, beginning genealogists miss their ancestors by sticking too firmly to the idea that “that’s not how my family spelled their name, so it can’t be my ancestor.”

This statement ignores these basic truths:

1) Ancestors who were illiterate would have no idea how to spell their own name, let alone how someone else should spell it.

2) Until the twentieth century, spelling rules were far more flexible and fluid than what we think of today. That was true for routine words, not just surnames.

3) Even if your family was highly educated and truly did feel strongly about how their name should be spelled — the record taker might not have been as concerned. Ultimately, it depends on how the record creator chose to spell the name – not what your family thought about how it should be spelled.

4) Human error happens.

Using as our starting point the recognition that our family members’ surnames may appear in records under a variety of spellings, let’s try to widen our net to explore how “misspellings” may occur, and how you can go about generating more alternate variations to aid in your search.

I’ve divided the types of errors into three basic categories – “sound alikes,” “look alikes,” and simple human errors.


Many so-called “spelling errors” can be attributed to various ways of spelling the same sounds. Consider the following situations:

Even single letters can sound similar. Think about a time when you may have had to spell your name for someone on the telephone. How many of our letters sound similar when said? B, C, D, E, G, P, T are just some examples. Even if your ancestor was spelling their name for the record-creator, it might not have been heard and recorded correctly.

This matter is further complicated if there was an accent involved. Perhaps your ancestor was an immigrant, struggling to still learn English, or unable to speak it at all. Maybe the  census taker was from Boston, but had recently moved to southern Alabama. Undoubtedly differences in pronunciations might affect how a name or other information was recorded.

It can sometimes be a fun game to brainstorm as many ways as possible to spell a name. Young children who are just learning to write and sound out words phonetically can also be enlisted to help. I personally remind myself to “think like a third-grader” when I’m trying to develop a list of alternate spellings for a surname.

A favorite example I use to illustrate this point is the surname: Cole.

Cole, Coal, Coale, Kohl, Koehl, Kole, Koal.

Put an accent or variation on the pronunciation of this, and it can result in:

Cool, Coole, Call, Coyle, Coil, Cale, Caile, Goal, Gole, Golle, Kale, Koohl, Kile, Kyle. Undoubtedly there are more variations to this name than what I’ve listed above.


Anyone who has looked at original handwritten records knows how difficult they can be to read. If the ink has faded or blurred, or the original microfilm image was poorly filmed, legibility is further compromised. It can be easy to misread letters, and even a single letter may throw off your search.

Many genealogical search interfaces, like that of Ancestry, allow you to control how precisely your search term is matched,  and broader matches catch many misspellings of little consequence (like an O being misinterpreted as an A for example). But sometimes, a misread or truly misspelled name may not be able to be picked up by a search engine.

I once encountered a poorly written “Isic” which had been misinterpreted as “Jess”.


1910 United States Federal Census for Jess A Rader

When I saw the original document, it was easy for me to see how the misinterpretation had occurred. Complicated by the misspelling, it did look like the name “Jess”. Because I knew that the man involved was a family member, and could confirm this by the other individuals in his household, I knew that his proper name was “Isaac.” Fortunately, Ancestry makes provision for such situations by allowing you to suggest alternate information or corrections.

A less dramatic example is when I recently encountered the surname “Beanland” while literally reading through census records for Lincoln County, Tennessee in 1870.

1870 United States Federal Census for J H Beanland


Initially, I thought that the name might have been “Beauland”–a different and previously unencountered variation on the surname “Bolin” for which I was searching. Further research revealed “Beanland” to be the correct interpretation, but this variation made me realize that there might be another way of spelling my surname of interest–one that I had not considered before.

Just as there are audible confusions among letters that sound the same (B, C, D, P), likewise there are written letters that can often be visually confused. Lowercase As, Os, and Us may be almost indistinguishable.  Uppercase I and J are extremely similar, and may rely heavily on the rest of the word to be interpreted accurately. Lowercase double Rs can look like a single N.  The lowercase letters N, M, and U can also shape-shift into one another.  Think about likely visual misinterpretations as you conduct your searches, and use these “misspellings” in your search terms.


These examples point out our third category of misspelling – human error.

All of the indexes and data contained in databases like Ancestry are typed in by people. And despite many levels of quality control and review, human error can still occasionally creep in. Transpositions, extraneous insertions, or accidental deletions and oversights within the typed indexes can occur. Some of Ancestry’s databases originate outside of the Ancestry team; occasionally such typed indexes may not have had the same degree of quality control that Ancestry uses.

Transposition errors are sometimes especially common in older self-published items found in libraries. These can be transcriptions of county records or compiled family histories that were created on a computer or typewriter, hand-indexed, and reproduced at a local copy shop. While often a search of the index in a printed item might reveal an obvious misspelling, since all entries are listed together and can be skimmed visually on a single page, such problems are more difficult when encountered via an online search. The simple transposition of  “Bloin” for “Bolin,” for instance, might not be as easily detected during an online search. This is where paying close attention to your search settings can pay off. My search settings were broad enough that they still returned this result, but I could have missed it if my settings had been too precise.

Omissions can also cause problems. “Bolin” is one surname that I search often. There are a number of variations to this term, but during one search, I discovered that the L in the middle had been inadvertently deleted in the typed index, leaving me with “Boin.” Fortunately, my search settings were broad enough that this misspelling was still returned in my search results. When I confirmed that the original document had an L in the middle, I was able to add an alternate spelling to the database to make it easier to find for future researchers.


It can be helpful to compile a list of alternate spellings, either that you have brainstormed yourself, or more importantly, that you have actually encountered in records. Use this list of alternate spellings when searching databases and indexes.

If you perform a search on a particular set of records but get no useful results containing your ancestor, see what else you can learn from the search results that you do get. I experienced this when searching the California, Railroad Employment Records database. I did not find my ancestor in these records, but I did find some additional ways to spell his last name: Boylan, Boulden, and Bolon, to name just a few. Although my search results were negative, I nevertheless gained some additional information which might aid me in future searches on other databases.

Recognize that as a practical matter, few individuals will have their name spelled precisely and consistently in all records throughout their entire lifetime. Records keepers might have been careless, uneducated, or used different spellings for the same phonetic sounds. Handwriting interpretation and transcription is always difficult. And even the most detail-oriented and accurate people may still occasionally make small errors which could impact your search. The myth of believing that “our family always spelled it that way” can impair your research, and hamper your progress. Using broader, “sounds like” settings and thinking of creative, alternative ways to spell your family’s surname can help move your research forward.

Linda Barnickel

Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book,Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013) and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at


  1. Wynne Gillis

    I totally agree!! Take my first name, for instance, which was my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. In the first place, it’s Irish, not Welsh as my Dad told me. My mother added the “e” to “make it look more feminine” despite my aunt’s assertion that we “never” spell it with an “e.” Au contraire. When we went to county Sligo, Ireland, where the Wynns supposedly came from, we found a page and a half in the phone directory of Wynnes spelled with the “e” and only half a dozen or so without.
    Moreover, when I looked into New York census records for my great-grandfather, I found his name spelled “Wainn” and “Winn.” His first name was Peter, but even that was misspelled as “Peder” in the same record that listed him as “Wainn.” Did he have an Irish brogue? Probably.
    So yes, spread that net as wide as you can think of.

  2. Good search engines allow for many of these spelling variants with soundex, fuzzy, contains, starts with, single letter substitution and other features

  3. Jim Lynch

    I looked for my parents in the 1940 census for several years. I knew where they lived plus the most likely places they would have been when the canvasser came around. I finally found them by searching for one of their neighbors, good family friends for a long time. I finally found them and their name had been mangled by the census taker. Lynch turned into Lyner. And that wasn’t even the worst, another transcriber for a family genealogy book managed to turn Lynch into Lynd. (“History of the Barnes-Vinson Family”).

  4. Paula

    I think my favorite name misspelling is one I found in the 1910 and 1920 census records (I think those were the years). In one year, I spotted a young girl with the unfortunate name of “Dicey Spud.” I wanted to know more about her, so I checked ten years later. That time, a different census taker spelled her name “Dizzy Speed”! Which is it? Either way, I got a laugh out of it!

    • Lynn

      On humorous names in census records, an ancestor named Childerbert, no doubt with a thick German accent, was transcribed Jellipot

  5. Anne Reeves

    Dear Wynne Gillis, Here, from Ancestry last name origins is what is given for Wynne with an /e/:
    Wynne Name Meaning
    English: variant spelling of Wynn. Welsh: variant of Gwynn. Irish (Connacht): adopted as an English equivalent of Gaelic Ó Gaoithin ‘descendant of Gaoithín’ (see Gahan), because Gaelic gaoth also means ‘wind’, and the English surname Wynne was taken as being related to the English vocabulary word wind.

    Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

    With Ireland having had numerous English, Welsh and Scots living there and intermarrying with the native Irish population over the centuries (since the 12th), it would probably be impossible to know, now, exactly the origin of the last name.

  6. Kerry

    I have come across a number of misspellings for the my family name Blaser: in marriage record misspelled Bloser, passenger list index as Balser while on the actual passenger list correctly as Blaser and Blazer or Blayer on the 1905 Wisconsin census.

  7. Beckie

    Search engines reading newspapers can also spell creatively. I was just searching for a B-e-r-n-I-c-e. Because of the type font, I also found results with the spelling B-e-m-i-c-e.

  8. Alan Doyne

    Then there is the situation where my ancestors thought they knew how the name was spelled but they didn’t pronounce it that way, so census takers and mapmakers wrote down what they heard; thence Doyen or Doyne came out Dawin and in one case Darwin (boy was that hard to find!) Then there was the Roeh family inevitably indexed as Roch or Rock.

  9. Linda

    My Low family used Lowe as well as Low. My Stevens family recorded some marriages in the same family bible as Stephens.

  10. Michael

    My genealogy project started out trying to identify the woman my grandmother referred to as her step-grandmother (in the end she turned out to be her father’s eldest sister). I started out with her second married name Reed, which in one census was entered as Reede and transcribed as Rude. Her first marriage record shows that husband’s surname as Brown; following the family I have never found the name spelled the same way twice, including Brent, Brandt, Braun. When I finally tracked the husband to his home county in Virginia it appears the original spelling was Brann. In other contexts I regularly find the a surname spelled more than one way in the same document.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Michael: Thank you for sharing your experience of misspelled names with us, Michael. We wish you the best of luck with your further research!

  11. Jane

    Great reminders!! My cousin (newly found via Ancestry!) & I are researching the COYLE branch of our families. I’ll re-visit my steps and try using alternate name variations. Thanks for the reminder of this trick, which I knew, but in actuality had been forgetting to use!

  12. Kimberley

    Thank you for this advice. My surname is Powley and I haven’t had much luck yet getting very far. My parents divorced a long time ago and my dad’s side of the family rejected my brother and I. There aren’t any documents for me to go on, only a few things I remember being told and a few related surnames. A needle in a haystack. I’ll try using the surname variations and my Ancestry DNA results too.

    • Diana Langie

      Hi Kimberley,
      I sympathize with the challenges you likely face in conducting genealogical research. Building a cohesive and comprehensive family history is a daunting task, even for those lucky enough to have tons of documentation and detailed records to utilize. I have friends who find themselves in situations similar to the one you have described. I know it can be quite frustrating sometimes. It is all the more difficult to locate meaningful records, when much of what may usually be considered pretty basic information about one’s ancestry, is not known, readily accessible, nor easily verified.

      I, myself, am one generation of separation from a similar situation. However, I am very fortunate that due consideration for the fact that I am my own person -not to mention, I was born after the messy separation occurred- was given. After some hesitation, a verdict, apparently, was reached: It wouldn’t be fair to extend any ostracism to me; in any case, I am still family; and finally, it wouldn’t be right to impede my access to, or deny me, information relevant to my ancestry. Rather, my pursuit of genealogical knowledge ought be encouraged, and assisted, when possible.

      Considering how much information and documentation relevant to our personal genealogy is buried in masses of public domain data, I think we all sort of have a right to basic information about our lineages. Everyone’s situation is unique, and we are always restricted to the realms of what is possible, and plausible, naturally. When it is possible, though, no family dispute, divorce, separation, abandonment, rejection, nor even mutual refusal to ever interact in any way, should pose an absolute barrier to basic knowledge of personal ancestry.

      I don’t presume to know any way the matter might be properly addressed. Of course, ideally, everyone should be able to establish a solid, baseline starting point, to utilize if we choose to learn about our own ancestry and conduct general genealogical research.

      If nothing else, I am providing supportive argumentation which reinforces the idea that genealogical research is inherently collaborative (viewed in a certain light, this is rather obvious). What this means, generally speaking, is that genealogical information is accumulated collectively; the only way to find the pieces of the puzzles we are each trying to construct, is if we share (within reason, obviously) the metaphorical puzzle pieces we may happen to find, even if they aren’t pieces of our own puzzles.

      In reality, we don’t have billions of different family trees- just one, really, really gigantic one. We can’t expect to ever see the whole thing, but together, we can map large boughs and find ourselves within the branches.

      Kimberley, I wish you the best of luck. I also want to say that if you feel totally stuck at a dead end while you search, don’t give up hope. New information, of all ages, is consistently being digitalized for public access, and I know a couple of people who really seemed to be at an eternal impasse, who later found more data than they knew how to keep organized, by chance coincidences. Something has to be around somewhere : )

  13. Barbara

    I found an entire group of ancestors & their descendants where the name “Crowson” first misspelled “Croson” and ultimately became “Crosno” (also Crosnoe).

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Barbara: That’s really interesting, Barbara! We’re glad to hear you were able to successfully trace this family, despite the changes in spelling. We hope you continue to enjoy researching your family history with us.

  14. Rich Vance

    In Nancy’s above example of Jess A “Isaac” Rader, I would like to point out that the surname Rader can also be spelled at least six different ways; believe me – I KNOW.

    It has been both challenging and rewarding seeking out my ancestors with all the alterate spellings.

    Cheers, Rich
    (3rd great-grandson of Henry Rater)

  15. Rich Vance

    Sorry, I meant Linda’s example (I have no idea where my misconception of Nancy came from). 0_o

    My error just illustrates, again, how easily one can veer off on a tangent.

  16. Susie VanSumeren

    I have been trying for several years to do further research on my great grandfather. I have found 6 different spellings of his last name yet can’t find what it would have been in Germany before he came to the United States around 1886-88. The earliest record I have is his marriage record in 1889 and it was listed as Piatkowski, then various census show it as Pakowaki, Pokouska, Pakoske and the final version became Petoskey around 1930. If anyone has any suggestions, I would greatly appreciate the help!

    • Susie –
      I’m not an expert on German research, but based on the examples of the name that you gave, it sounds much more like a Polish surname more than a German one. Poland as a country did not exist in 1880; it was divided up by Russia, Austria, and Prussia. You might look carefully at the language spoken listed in the census records. You might find, for instance, that the country of origin or birthplace appears as Austria, though the language spoken is Polish. (To use an example from my own family). You might also, if you haven’t already, try a simple google search for: surnames Piatkowski . I got a lot of results that look promising, including this link from Ancestry:

      • Theresa Grieshaber

        See if you can locate a copy of the Columbia Gazeteer, preferably the 1971 edition, in a library near you. You can search on WorldCat for this title. It’s a great way to identify place names, especially in places where there were shifting national boundaries.

    • Jeanne Cybulski White

      Susie, I am hoping I am not too late to be of assistance to you! My name is Jeanne and I am a certified genealogist (despite my degrees being Eastern European historically focused). Polish names can be regional in nature. My first guess is that he could be from Prussia. Poles from this area will always state “Germany” or “Prussia” as their country of origin. The church books from this area are written in Latein, a combination of German and Latin and very odd. Let me know how I may help, Jeanne

      • Brian

        Jeanne – In addition to surnames, a city name communicated verbally has created my roadblock. In 1897, a 29 year old Veronika boarded Arcadia Hamburg line to Canada as a single mother with three kids and placed her country as Austria (short probably for Austro-Hungarian empire). I know she lived somewhere near Lemberg, Galicia, Austria. Her city recorded on the passenger list is Naradowa, which I cannot find in Galicia province anywhere. Yet, one city named Nawarya (Navaria, Navariya) comes close to Naradowa, in spelling at least. As mentioned in this thread, phonetics, in this case with a German accent, of Naradowa is probably known as something else on a map. Trying to find her marriage and husband Franz’s birth and death and of course his parents. Franz died young in Europe and was one reason she left continent.

  17. Patsy Munoz

    I am having problems trying to spell my uncles name my grandpa spelled it Vivian or Viviano I need help please

    • Terry

      Hi Patsy,
      I don’t know what you have tried. There are multiple letters in the name which can be misread. I do suggest trying the letter ‘V’ and the wildcard *(enter 1st name and then V*). Not many last names beginning with V so search results in all but urban areas should give you manageable results. If you know where he lived using the card catalog can help. A rural area or small town can be searched manually by using the card catalog, too. Just open up the census record for the area and year you want to search. You may contact me for further help- no charge.
      Good Luck,

  18. Useful resources for when you are trying to find additional ways to spell names or to research their ethnicity include compilations such as the Dictionary of American Family Names edited by Patrick Hanks (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003). Check with your local library to see what resources they might have available, in addition to those that can be found on Ancestry.

  19. Anna Billstrom

    I also had a great discovery : “Mazura” was “Missouri”. It really opened doors once I realized the census taker was using a phonetic spelling.

  20. Barbara Hanson

    I spent years researching family name Cliff. Eventually tried Clift and found a whole line of ancestors going back to the original voyage of the Mayflower. Of course the first name was also mispelled which didn’t help but I eventually got there. I have heard that occasionally census takers relied on neighbors for information which really makes for confusion. Not sure if thats true.

    • Christi Stringer

      Judging by the number of mistakes in 1 semi recent family census (1930’s), that would make sense (wrong name of 1 member, wrong age of one, wrong birthplace for 3 of them and those were the errors I could easily find).

  21. Marie

    When checking many years of census records, I found many misspellings of my paternal grandparents names. Moritz became Morris and Wilhemina became Minnie. Strangely enough, their long German surname, Abendschein, was mostly correct, but occasionally Abendschoen.

    • Lynn

      First names were sometimes anglicized over time. I have a Moritz that became Morris in my family. Also nicknames – Wilhelmina is a mouthful so a nickname is almost required. Also, nicknames can be bestowed unrelated to the person’s real name: Butch, Buzz

  22. Laura J Blackwell

    I have been researching my mother’s side of the family which is Baillou. I had a hard time finding any information until I realized that the spelling of Baillou was incorrect in the census. The U became an N or a W. Sometimes the L is missing then I saw a whole new spelling of Baillou. Also there were different variations of Clemons. I have seen Clemmons, Clemment, Clement, and Clemments. Back in the days, I feel that the census taker didn’t bother to ask how to spell their last names, so they put down what they think it is which makes it very hard to research and your not sure if you have the right person even though you compare what you have and what the census has. To some point I have been successful using the different variations of the spelling and some not.

  23. Stephanie Abbott

    I was surprised to find my Kennedy family spelled Cannaday, Kenneday,Kenida, and Caneda. I thought it might reflect accents of the time. This was the South.

  24. Ray Centa

    My last name is frequently spelled Senta or even Sentra (I think because of the car). In one of the limbs of my tree, a relative, back in the early 1900s, actually got so frustrated by people mis-spelling his last name as Senta, he actually officially changed it to that spelling. All of his descendants are therefore named Senta

  25. Barbara

    My middle and last name were misspelled on my grade school diploma, it was spelled out for them and I’m not THAT old 🙂 We got used to having our surname mispronounced a looong time ago. It is just a fact of life.

  26. Bob

    My great grandfather emigrated from a farm in Norway called Nedremyr (which translates ‘lower mire’). He took the farm name as his family name (typical for Scandinavians), when he was naturalized in the US he changed it to Myhre, one of his brothers changed his family name to Nermyr.

  27. Dan

    I have this headache. I have a great-great grandfather who appears in all likely hood to be George T but in some records it looks like George F.

    • Judy S

      Dan, It may have been a transcription error if the name was copied from something written in cursive. There were many variants on cursive script taught, even within the same state. Sometimes this makes “decoding” what a letter is tricky. The form of cursive I learned in school is something like this: Those two letters that are causing you trouble are identical, except for the crossbar on the “F.”
      However, European cursive is trickier for distinguishing a “T” or “F” because the tail of the letter forms the crossbar that turns it into an “F” – see image at
      So, if the original writer and the transcriber learned different cursive scripts, that can cause confusions. Obviously, there are other factors, such as condition of the document, how careful the writer or transcriber formed their letters, the age/health of either party that might make the hand shaky, the writing instrument, i.e. an ink pen that skips or runs dry just as the crossbar is formed, etc. Another pair of letters that I know cause a similar problem are capital “O” and “Q.” Happy hunting!

  28. Warren

    My cousins and I have had this argument for a long time in the spelling of our last name. My Grandfather added an “s” to his last name, my father kept us singular, his brother went plural, and so it went. As I have researched by through the lineage, it has been Samuel, Samuell, and Samuels. Looking at the censuses, many of the mistakes were made by the census taker. I believe the original was with the double el.

    • Judy S

      Spelling variations with a family can easily happen when they become isolated from each other, like the Waggoner family when some of them “went west” and settled on one variation (Wagener), vs those who stayed in NC and chose another (Wagoner). Yet another branch went to the midwest and settled on spelling it Wagner.

  29. Colleen

    Thank you for this informative article and all the comments! I’ve had the same spelling errors searching my grt grt grandfather. His first name was Chukesberry which I’ve now found spelled 12 different ways, such as cheekerbury, and I’m sure there are still many more! Add that to his last name which is spelled about as many different ways, and it gets to be a real puzzle. I have a great grandmother whose first and middle name is Zerelda Melvina. We have been unable to find her in any records at all before her marriage to my great grandfather and don’t know if her last name was recorded as her married name or was also her last name. In one of the first records she was listed as Emma which is very far away from the name Zerelda which is also a name with many spelling variations. But we’ve had fun searching and have expanded our family tree by quite a bit along the way!

    • Margaret

      Could it be Eema instead of Emma? Eema is Hebrew for mother. I found my grt grt grandmother listed as Cena Ernst. That’s nowhere close to her name of Marie Ruotte, but she was 100 when the census was taken. Not sure where the Ernst come from.

  30. David Harding

    Two stories about relatively easy name variations. From my great-great-grandfather’s autobiographical sketch (written in the third person):
    In the spring of 1825 he went to Hopkins County, Kentucky, and spent a few months with his grandfather [Nicholas] Harding and other relatives… Up to the time of his visit at his grandfather’s, in common with other relatives of the name, he had omitted the letter “g”, spelling the name “Harden” or “Hardin”. But his grandfather convinced him that the proper spelling of it is “Harding”. It is of English origin, and in England the “g” is never omitted, but in some instances was formerly and perhaps is yet spelled “Hardinge”.

    On the other hand, I searched for years for my great-grandfather in the 1880 census. That was a tumultuous time for him. He was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity of assault with intent to kill in January, sold his stake in his Indianapolis newspaper, and moved to Minnesota. After trying loose searches of Indiana, Minnesota, and the intervening states, I figured he had slipped through the cracks. A couple of years ago, combing Indianapolis newspapers for his name, I learned that he had bought a newspaper in a Minnesota town small enough that I could read though the entire census listing. There I found the family indexed as “Hardney”. Looking at other entries on the page, I find the census taker’s lower case “g”s indistinguishable from his lower case “y”s. I can’t judge whether the three consecutive humps between the “d” and the final letter were meant to be “in” or “ne” or something else. The census taker did generally dot his “i”s, but did not dot any of these letters, and the third hump seems to be a bit different, so he may well have meant “e” or “a”.
    Searching for other “Hardney” listings led me to the 1870 census back in Indianapolis, where he had also been indexed as “Hardney”. Here I am more confident that the census taker’s intent was correct, but his handwriting was still difficult.

  31. Lynda Durfee

    About 20 years ago I began researching my Coxwell cousins, with a common ancestor who was born about 1800. All of these cousins lived in the South, and most were illiterate, even into the early 20th century. Apparently, one family was erroneously called Coxville in county tax records, and they’ve continued this spelling down to this day. At least, when searching, the first three letters (Cox) were the same.

  32. Gary

    Very good information here, for example, the 1940 census taker recorded my grandfathers surname as “Minniear”, instead of the correct “Minter”.

  33. Judy S

    Unvoiced-Voiced consonant pairs. In English and many other languages, there are similar consonants which differ by whether or not you basically poke out your lips and add a puff of air. Say the following pairs one after the other and you will see what I mean: B-P, V-F, D-T, J-Ch, G-K, and Zh (genre)-Sh. This accounts for many spelling variations.
    My favorite ancestor’s much-varied name history (G-K pair) is summed up in the first line of his biography, “Peter Binkley was born to Christen Binggeli and …” I have seen the name spelled Binggeli, Bingelli, Bingley, Bengeley, Bengelay, and Binckele, Binkele, and finally the modern spelling Binckley. He was born and lived in areas where the borders/rulers’ language changed several times, then immigrated to America, where more variations ensued.

  34. Judy – Thanks for the great examples of the pairs of letters. I’ve also found my Southern ancestors from TN must’ve added “er” to words instead of a final “a”. One family member named “Alma” shows up as “Almer”; likewise I’ve seen “Alabama” turn into “Alabamer”.
    Thanks everybody for so many great examples!

  35. Brian

    In addition to surnames, a city name communicated verbally has created my roadblock. In 1897, a 29 year old Veronika boarded Arcadia Hamburg steamer line to Canada as a single mother with three kids and placed her country as Austria (short probably for Austro-Hungarian empire). I know she lived somewhere near Lemberg, Galicia, Austria. Her city recorded on the passenger list is Naradowa, which I cannot find in Galicia province anywhere. Yet, one city named Nawarya (Navaria, Navariya) comes close to Naradowa, in spelling at least. As mentioned in this thread, phonetics, in this case with a German accent, of Naradowa is probably known as something else on a map. Knowing the city helps in trying to find her marriage and husband Franz’s birth and death and of course the parents. Franz died young in Europe and was one reason Veronika left the continent.

  36. Terry

    The handwriting of the census takers also makes a difference in looking up names. I found my husbands family however because the census take wrote large letters and the person’s name above the ancestors had “y””g” and “j” covering the names, so the person who later typed the names totally misread the names. Wanda became Frances. I also found that although my relatives knew how to spell their names, the census taker did not understand their accent and changed letters base on what heard but not really said.

  37. Arlene

    When I started to trace one of my lines, all I knew was that my grandfather, John Lamont, was born in 1876 in Ohio. By the 1900 census he was already married and living in Rhode Island so I was trying to find him in the 1880 census so I could learn the names of his parents. After trying many variations of Lamont, I looked for all the John’s in Ohio that were between 3-5 years old. Then the same for nearby Pennsylvania. I finally found him indexed there with last name Mont – as “John LA Mont” i.e. LA was interpreted as his middle initials… Gratefully he was there with his parents and I was able to make great strides on that line. I suppose a similar thing could occur with say DuBois – making the DU to be middle initials and the last name ‘Bois’.

  38. Karen Obermark

    When I was searching for early records of my great grandfather Peter Oakes I eventually discovered he was called Peter Eikes when he married. This led to the discovery of earlier records for he and his parents who were from Bavaria.
    With my French ancestors I learned they were often known to others by their second name or a nickname. The first name was often Marie or possibly a grandparent’s name on the official baptism or birth record. And then the last names would be two names. Example would be Normand dit LaBruyere. Descendants may use one of these names or both names as their last name. Dit indicates “called”.

  39. Rosalie Jensen

    I have added changes for countless census corrections but the last two I had are these. I was looking for a Uhtoff. It would not come up then I found it on Find a Grave but spelled with only one F. I also found the moving of the H, Uhtof, Uhtoff, Uthof, Uthoff. They all sound the same and even look the same unless you look closely. Last night I was looking a Andrews and trying to find a DNA match. I thought I had it but then it changed to Andrus and a different area so I am still searching. My Andrews line stayed Andrews all along to England 1500’s so I did not think about Andrus until I saw it. Thanks for the comments. Good to keep expanding our thought files..

  40. Karen

    Thank you so much for this helpful article! I wish I would have read it when I started my searching 2 years ago! 🙂

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Karen We’re glad to hear you found this helpful! Good luck with your further research.

  41. Michelle

    I’ve had to do this with my great-great grandfather T.J. Mullane. Despite knowing exactly where he lived in 1880, I could not turn him up in the 1880 census. It wasn’t until I found him by scrolling through the enumeration district he lived in that I discovered his name had been recorded as T.J. McLay. My best guess being the enumerator didn’t understand his accent having been born in Ireland. I’ve also encountered spellings of Mulan, Mulane, Mullena, Mullan, Mullene, and Mulaine while trying to track down someone who I believe to be his brother. Still can’t find either of them in the 1870 census despite again knowing where they lived (though in this case with only about 85% certainty.)

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Michelle We’re glad to hear you were able to find details about your great-great grandfather, despite the spelling errors. We wish you the best of luck with your further research!

  42. Neil A Spangler

    My greatgrandfather emigrated to America as Johannes Aaron Austin. A contact says that Austin is not a very likely name and my searches before he arrived in western Pennsylvania about 1890 havedrawn a blank have ship registers for the time he claims to have arrived in New York. Has anyone got any ideas what the Swedish that yielded Austin might have sounded like?

  43. Jacqueline LaMar

    My great great grandfather, Charles Ambrose LaMar, born on 22 Dec 1836, was a seaman and emigrated from France, near LeHavre to New York. His first name was sometimes listed on the census as Constant vice Charles, or by his middle name Ambrose. That’s understandable. My problem is that I’ve studied Slavic languages, German, and Spanish, not French. I cannot contemplate what our surname LaMar might have been originally. The easy one, Lamarre does not seem to work. Any ideas would be appreciated. This is a really interesting blog!

    • Jacqueline – this is interesting, as “la mer” means “the sea” in French. I have no further suggestions, but perhaps that is the origin of your family’s name, because of his occupation and/or coastal residence.

  44. Patricia Watkins Root

    Very interesting article. I have been stymied at every turn trying to find my Great Grandfather. He shows up once with my Great Grandmother and the spelling is Deens , but my family has always spelled it DEAN. I don’t really know many other ways it could be spelled. My Gt. Grandmother then shows up in the next census listed as Dean but without her husband present. Just don’t know where to go from here.

  45. Helen K. Overy

    I need advice about how to properly show a legal name change on geneological records. My son changed his last name legally and at the same time the name of his wife and unmarried daughter was changed also, a new son has been born under the new name. I didn’t change my married named to his new one even though I was invited to be included. His family only uses the new one now. The old/new last name only includes 5 letters and only the first letter has been changed. What is the proper way to show their name on geneological records to avoid confusion to new searchers and generations?

  46. My experience has been that there are so many transcription errors. Transcription errors are a huge problem. So when the item is transcribed and then typewritten I’m shocked at some of the errors. Some because the transcriber simply wasn’t a good typist. You’ll see whole pages that are wrong in various census records. Another issue I’ve had was just being able to read whatever it is. German is my second language. Kanzleiscrhift and Sütterlinschrift occur a great deal in 19th century documents in Pennsylvania and in Germany. Very old church documents are sometimes so difficult to read. It’s not the German I had trouble with – I’m very fluent in German – but I couldn’t read it. In one case I sent an image to an older couple in Germany. I asked them to help me to translate it into Kurrentschrift – modern German writing. I explained my difficulty and told them I was ashamed I couldn’t read it. The couple (who were in their late eighties) explained that they were on the tail end of a generation that could even read this form. Once Hitler took poor more modern writing became the standard in print and handwriting – the reason – no one could read it. And even when you could there would be more than one interpretation of what was written.

  47. David Tieman

    My ggf was Conrad ‘Fite’ from Baden. He was not literate. In the 1860 Census he is living with the Kelly family and the spelling is ‘Fite’. That continues in 1870 when he is married and living next door to the Kellys. Search engines found those and handled “Fight” on his Civil War records. Realizing that those were not German spellings, I looked for ‘Veit’ and found his immigration records, and I tried ‘Veith’ and found the family in the 1880 Census. When I tried ‘Feit’, I found his marriage in 1890–mistranscribed at a German Catholic church as ‘Seite’. Later, he is living with his children and it reverted to ‘Fite’. The constant is the pronunciation of a one syllable name. I will spare you my search for ‘Gluesenkamp’. I recommend the Geogen web site for an interesting perspectives on names as they exist today.

  48. James Spaulding

    In two of the U.S. census I was surprised to see my grandmother “Polly Clay” listed as “Ollie”. Made it sound like grandfather had a modern same sex marriage!

    • Montie Monzingo

      My paternal grandmother’s name was Ollie Alma; she went by Alma. My paternal great-great-grandmother’s name was Edward Janetta; she went by Nettie.

  49. Montie Monzingo

    DNA Texting has confirmed various spelling of my surname; Monzingo, Montzingo, Mazingo, Muzingo, and the earliest known spelling, Mozingo. In one early census, it appeared to be Montyingo. One of my grad school classmates surname was pronounced Co’-horn, but was spelled Cochran by and early census taker.

  50. Royall Brown

    My wife’s father and his brother each spelled his name differently…her father, Pimental….his brother Pimentel….Baptism records both show Pimental…Her Grandfather’s always shows as Fajao, but cannot be found in any Portuguese (Azores) records. Found his Baptism files from Catholic church in San Miguel, Azores….It’s Oliveira. Finally figured it out. His application for a Passport in 1946 showed his name as Manuel Oliveira de Faja. Then I found that he lived in a small village in San Miguel named either Fafa Baixo (meaning lower) or Faja Cima ( meaning upper). Apparently at Ellis Island he was asked his name and where he was from….therefore, Manuel Oliveira de (from) Faja. I have since found his marriage records in Bermuda listed as Manuel Oliveira. He also gave his 2 boys and 3 girls the middle name of Oliveira.

  51. amanda

    Out of all the surnames, you chose to focus on the Rader’s (German Descent) of Tennessee. Those are my ancestors. For a moment, I thought Ancestry was customizing e-mails for each member…WOW…Not even close, you really did use the Rader’s as an example. Freaky!

    • Amanda – how interesting! The Rader’s are a step-family to mine, so I’ve not done any “tracing”- but if the people I mention are your kin, lets talk. Please contact me via the form on my website. Just click on my name on this comment.

  52. Hiawatha Northington II

    Very informative article! I think my family research issues covered the entire spectrum – misspellings, mispronunciations, transposition, omissions, and my favorite, handwriting mysteries! “Northington” sometimes ended up transcribed as Worthington because the fancy cursive “N” looked like a “W”

  53. Pauline Via

    In researching my Mother’s family name of McIntire I have found it spelled just about every way possible. When I was searching for him in the 1920 census I simple couldn’t find him. I knew where he was living but couldn’t find any of the usual spelling for McIntire. Then I
    started searching for Clinton .On in 1920 I found him listed as Clinton Mcqutin. As I have traced the McIntire family farther back I can only go to John McIntire, died in Maury Co, TN., supposedly born in PA. (His sons listed his birthplace in 1880 as PA.) Now on there are to many to name but they are reading his name as John M. McIntire. Of all the documents I have in my 45 year collection I have never found a M. for a middle name. I have tried to tell a lot of them that I am almost positive that he did not have a M. for a middle name and have ask them to correct it, but they ignore the request. On my Mitchell line going back to York Co, VA people are using my research on Abraham Mitchell d. 1696, then adding parents for him with out any documentation at all. How can I get them to correct this?

  54. My ancestor had the last name Wright. In a 1851 census in England the name was listed as Right in the original census. It was however transcribed as Kight on the digital index. I found it because I knew the names of the children (as well as the parents)who fortunately were still living with the mother and father. Now to find them in the 1841 census. The place in 1851 was Tenaby, Pembrokshire. But it was not their home in the 1840s.

  55. Duane Harp

    This is encouraging to see. My paternal family name “Harp” is an example of the pronunciation issue. Easily misinterpreted from the Irish “Earp”, I’m OK with accepting the switch because of that brogue, but positively connecting the first Harp to the last Earp is killing me! Any thoughts?

  56. Charline Dosenbach

    In the 1940 census I found my parents and myself, my parents are correct but I am listed age 26 to parents in their 30s. The original reads 6months. I put a correction in but found no correction was been made to the input. This puts me 20 years older than what I am.

  57. Margaret Palmer

    I finally found my Henry Bromeyer as “Brainwernen” in the 1900 census with the help of a friend who was very good at the use of wild cards! His son, Carl, was “Carrel” but they got it right with great grandma Maggie! I haven’t had any other luck with them with any number of alternate spellings. Anyone know any Bromeyers from Germany who settled in Southern Illinois???

  58. Sharon Pickerill

    Great information here. Thank you.
    My grandfather was Daughtry, but cannot get farther than his dad. I will try various spellings now and hope for a breakthrough. Being from the south the records were burned in many cases.

  59. Dennis A. Day

    I would like to see more comments put on Ancestry pages if someone knows or even think an error exist. Put down your input even if you are unsure and put a ? At the end of your comment if you are unsure.

    • Dennis – With all respect, I have to disagree. I have encountered situations where someone, in an effort to be helpful, has unnecessarily complicated the situation and search results by “guessing” at an interpretation. I believe I even encountered one once where someone had made a “guess” – even though the original information was in fact correct. This resulted in an erroneous “hit.” I know the person who made the “correction” was trying to be helpful, but in the end, it made matters more complicated, and added uncertainty and confusion where there should have been none.

  60. Sheila

    I’ve seen a myriad of misspellings for my last name of Reppert. Some are Rapperd, Rappert, Repper, Rupert, Raperd Rapperd, Pepper(!), Ruppert, to name but a few but the best one to date, due to awful handwriting, that I accidentally came across, was Aeppert! NEVER would I have thought to check my ancestors under A! That taught me to discount nothing when searching. It can be both fun and frustrating doing searches!

  61. Shirlee

    My paternal grandparents met and married in Chicago. They were both Polish but came from different parts of Poland and emigrated around 1907. I sometimes get a hit using Austria not Poland. Should I use Austria-Poland for my grandmother? On my maternal side, I am Slovak. Also difficult to trace. And my maternal grandfather, who died weeks before my mother was born lists Austria. His last name was Radivoj, with lots of different spellings. Does not sound Austrian to me. Even though I have his parents names, my research stalls with him. Help!

  62. Jill Hartman

    How about this one: I had located my grandmother’s family records in the early 1900’s census. All her siblings were listed except for her. Then I noticed a 4-year-old child whose first name I didn’t recognize, “Theadie”. I finally figured out that my grandmother Sarah, also called “Sadie”, had said her own name to the census taker, and had a lisp!!!!!

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