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. 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”).

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Linda

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

  9. 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!

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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)

  14. 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.

  15. 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:

  16. Patsy Munoz

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

  17. 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.

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