Little Names Can Make Big Challenges

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 “Neppie” 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.  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 “e”), 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 “misspell” 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 “difficult ancestors” 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.

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17 thoughts on “Little Names Can Make Big Challenges

  1. I can really relate to the spelling issues regarding either forenames or surnames. My last name, OLIVEIRA, was not only spelled differently by different members of the family, but the “de” in front of it was also handled differently by everyone. Some, but not all, were aware that “de” was originally a prefix meaning “of;” others just ran it together with the surname and capitalized the first letter, making it “DeOliveira” or “DeOliviera.” Others with this surname (although no one in my family that I’ve found)just dropped the “de” when they came to the United States and ended up with “OLIVEIRA” or “OLIVIERA.” My great-grandfather, whose literacy in English was doubtful, spelled the name in many different ways–sometimes two different ways in the same legal document!

    On my mother’s side, my grandfather, Clyde Addison PARRISH, is listed in the 1900 U.S. Census as “Addie C PARRISH.” I would have never known about his childhood nickname based on his second given name if I hadn’t gone looking for him in the census.

  2. My mother’s birth name was Robbie, and her first cousin’s name was Billie (a girl). Over the course of their lives, they played around with the spelling of their names and also used nicknames, such as Rob and Bill. By high school, Mother had changed the spelling of her name to Robby. When she went to business school in the 1930s, she took penmanship and developed a beautiful cursive script. She then added an final “e” to her name because it looked “more sophisticated,” and thus she became Robbye. Depending on the time period, you will see her name on documents in at least three different variations.

  3. My grandmother always told me the Jno was an abbreviation for Joseph. In seeing that you didn’t list Joseph or Josephine as a possibility, I thought that I would point it out. I know that I have found ancestors that were named Joseph listed in the census as Jno.

  4. An interesting follow-up article could be on local abbreviations for place names. As an American tracing my English ancestors, I was stumped for sometime before I learned that “Hants” was a reference to “Hampshire”.

  5. Ah, census takers! My LEBRECHT/LEBRIGHT line is misspelled more often than not, but I think the prizewinner for the worst is NELLWRIGHT. (Yes, I’m serious. You can just imagine the fun of tracking this family.)

    If you find a misspelling on Ancestry, you can submit a correction as an alternative spelling. When you’re on the records page for an individual, there will be a box on your right with various options. Under Page Tools, click on Comments and Corrections. On the next screen, choose Alternative Name. It doesn’t matter whether the mistake was on the part of the transcriber, census taker, whomever. In fact, you must specify what type of error it is. The incorrect spelling will still be the “main” spelling of the name, but your corrected alternative will also appear and will be included in any searches. This is a big help for any follow-up research you do, as well as helping fellow researchers. Maybe you’ll meet up with another family member by helping them successfully find the right person with the wrong name! 🙂


  6. Several women in my family in the 19th century were recorded both in Census and VRs as Thursa or Thursy. It wasn’t until I came across Maria Thursy that I realized the name was actually Theresa and was take necause someone in the family had heard of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria in a hsitory book or similar work; but had nevver heard it pronounced. Just as Cheryl Parson’s mother eventually adopted Robbye “because it looked elegant,” the Thursys’ mothers adopted Theresa because it was the name of a famous woman! BTW, name was never recorded as Theresa.

  7. Just wanted to let you know that your article inspired me to try try again to find my great grandfather in the 1910 Census. I have been searching for him and his family for a few years now and was close to giving up because I knew that he moved around alot and so I just assumed he was one of those that dodged the census taker. Boy was I wrong! I’ve been using the sound index and trying different spellings for a long time…I thought I had that mastered and exhausted but for some reason your article struck a cord with me. My great grandfather’s last name was Andrako so I tried to put myself in the census takers shoes and pretended my great grandfather was giving his last name in his Hungarian accent and so I typed in Ondrako and I’ll be a son of a gun there he was! I had changed his last name in so many ways but never changed the first letter. It was an exciting moment for me to finally find them when I thought I never would! Now I’m off to hunt for him again in the 1900 census! Wish me luck!

  8. In reading your article, I also note many names have an ethnic background to them. My aunt by marriage had 2 brothers who were known as Heinie and Junie. Their proper english names are Henry and Andrew Junior. Also the a or e at an end can signify male or female. This comes from my german background

  9. Aren’t names funny? My mother’s first name is actually Sarah, but I didn’t know that until I was 14 – she always used her middle name, even on legal documents! I have to wonder if that’s the reason I can’t find some of her ancestors….

  10. Your last name does not have to be ethnic in origin to be misspelled. I never thought anyone could misspell Chandler, but it was. I searched 15 years the old hard way, by snail mail, as I live in Utah and the record of my grandparents marriage was in Alabama. Finally I was in Salt Lake at the LDS library and spent 3 hours going through spool after spool of microfilm, and guess what, I found them. Chandler had been spelled as Cander with their first names also misspelled. So remember ANY name can come out different than what you think and know.

  11. Lisa Thompson (comment #5, above) mentioned that will accept corrections to misspelled names in their indexes, but that the misspelled name is retained as the primary entry. Unfortunately, even when corrections have been submitted, the initial search results page shows only the misspelled name, not the corrections.

    Even after I submitted some corrections, I had a hard time recognizing in the search results that “Pudgealkoski” was really “Niedzialkoski”, that “Cumard” was “Bernard”, or that “Jerys” was “Joseph”. All of these were transcription errors that occurred while indexing the census records.

    The indexes on could be greatly improved by deleting documented errors while keeping legitimate spelling variations.

  12. A good thing to remember, before 1900 and some 1920, everyone had at least three, some four given names. While searching the census, I found several that used a different name on a different census but same age. Some used another given name when they moved to a different location. My father born 1896 had three given names as did his brothers and sisters. His older brother who I knew as Henderson C. was listed as Carol D. on early censuses. I guess the D. was Daniel becouse he named his youngest son Larry Daniel. My fathers mother had four given names and her brother gave his children four given names.

  13. I have a similar story about spellings. My Grandmother’s mother’s last name was Colbaker. In researching a number of generations and census records, I have found: Colbaker, Colebaker, Colbacker, Colebacker, Coleback, Colbacher, Kolbaker, Kohlbaker, Kohlbacher, Kohlbecker, Kolebacker, and my very favorite (a transcription error from indexing the census) “Snelbacker”! Quite a range, and it had made finding them a lot of fun.

  14. Dear all

    I thought finding yo husband gandfather and great-grandfather would be easy as they have a very unusual first name. Manaen. Wrong in the censues I was only able to find each of them once spelled correctly. I had to go to their spouses more commen first names to find them. Manaen was spelled Manama, Moran, Mauren. So I would suggest if you can’t find Your person try their spouse especially on Ancestry’s Everyname census index.

  15. I was tickled that you were stumped at first, by the name Hy in the census. My g-grandfather’s name was Henry, but he always went by Hy. Also my grandmother on the other side of the family always went by Millie. It wasn’t until I started doing research that my Dad found out her birth name was Emily. He was in his late 40’s when he found this out.
    I have come across others, but just want to say again how much I enjoy your columns.

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