Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday's Tip: A Name Isn't Always Just a Name

Genealogists are a lot like detectives: we strive to overturn any brick, rock, pebble or piece of rubbish that might help us solve the many mysteries of our family history. We use a combination of online and offline search methods, and continually look for new tools to add to our bags of tricks. One of the most basic rules of genealogy that we all know, but often forget, is this: if you search your ancestors' names using only the spelling YOU know or believe to be correct, you will likely miss out on some crucial -- and really cool -- information!

What do I mean by this? Well, just because you know your ancestors' surname to be "Smith," it might have been spelled at certain times, or on certain documents, as "Smyth" or "Smythe" or "Smithington" or something completely different, like "Smičiklas." This goes for first names, middle names, initials, nicknames and/or a combination of all of these.

Variances in name spellings can be attributed to all sorts of reasons: language barriers, limited literacy, the person taking the information didn't hear correctly (or didn't care), the person transcribing names from written documents couldn't read the handwriting correctly (or didn't care). And, of course, sometimes spellings of names just changed through the course of the years. 

In searching for my family history, I've run across tons of examples of this lesson:
  • Bartram, Bartrem, Bastram. That last spelling was a transcription
    As written in the 1841
    UK Census
    error in the 1841 UK census. It was written as Bartram, but whomever transcribed the document for Ancestry.com misread it as "Bastram." It took me awhile to figure it out, but once I did, I was able to find my GGGgrandparents, who were living just a few farms over from my GG grandfather (whose name was properly transcribed).
    As transcribed in the
    1841 UK Census
    For some reason, my GG grandfather and his children later ended up spelling the surname as "Bartrem." Everyone else in that line spells it as "Bartram," and I'm unsure how he ended up with that odd spelling. When his son, Joseph, came to the US, he changed it back to Bartram, and that's how our branch of the family spells it now. 
  • Veale, Veal, Vele, Viele, Vale and, um, Neale. "Veale" is the preferred spelling for our line, but it's spelled differently depending on where you look. My GGG grandfather, Andrew Jackson Veale, is listed as both "Veale" and "Veal" throughout his life. His name is also written as "Vele" in one census document. The spelling was interchanged at various points in time, with no real rhyme or reason. His grandfather, James Carr Veale, was listed as "James Carr Veale, alias Neale" on his Revolutionary War pension file. I'm guessing the Neale came from someone down the line thinking that his handwritten "V" looked like an "N" to them.
    James Carr Veale (alias Neale)
    Revolutionary War pension file
  • Harryman, Harriman, Harraman. This line started out as "Harryman," but I've heard from a cousin that it turned into "Harriman," and stayed that way in our line, after a misspelling in the census.
  • Noe, Noah. Not only do I find this surname spelled either way, but there are also several different pronunciations of the name. In my line, it's pronounced "KNOW-ee."
  • Beals, Beales, Bales. Spelling for this family name is all over the board in the Quaker documents I've found for this line. Makes researching them loads of fun!
  • Brittain, Britton, Brittian, Britain. In my line, it's consistently spelled "Brittain." However, I've run across documents with various spellings. I was having a devil of a time finding any death information in Van Buren County, Arkansas, for GG grandfather, Frederick Harmon Brittain, but it dawned on me one day that people OFTEN misspell my last name as "Brittian." When I tried searching using that incorrect spelling variation, guess what came to me: a cemetery record in Van Buren County, AR, for F.H. Brittian. Eureka!
Frederick Harmon Brittain, aka "F.H. Brittian,"
in the Van BurenCounty Cemetery Book
And don't forget about first and middle names. And initials. And nicknames, oh the nicknames!
  • I'm still trying to figure out if Melania Brittain and Melcinia Brittain are twins, or the same person with the first name spelled incorrectly somewhere. I have a hunch that they are the same person, but I need to find their/her family on the 1870 US census to be sure.
  • Mary Magdalena Brock is listed as Polly Brock on her wedding record. Polly is a very common nickname for Mary and for Margaret. I also have several "Harriets" who are also known as "Hattie." And, of course, "William" could be "Bill," "Billy," "Willie" or even "Bud."
  • My Andrew Jackson Veale (see above) is listed as Andrew Jackson, Andrew, Jackson, AJ and Jack in various records. Add to that the various spellings of his surname, and you can guess that I've had trouble tracking him down in a few instances.
A.J. Veal
Andrew Jackson Veal

Jackson Vele
Fortunately, we genealogists like a good challenge. Uncovering our family history wouldn't be much fun if all the information came to us in a pretty box with a big red ribbon on top. We just need to remember to make use of ALL of the information we have at our fingertips. Even though it might go against my every intuition to intentionally misspell names, I'd be a fool to not try anything that might help me dig up one more missing piece of information on my family lines!

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