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”.
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.
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.