When Misspellings Mar Your Ancestry Search

Tracing Your Roots: Ways to deal with records that show variations in the spelling of a family name.

 
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(The Root) --

"One line of my family tree, surname Hereford, has lived in the area of Huntsville, Ala., since at least the early 1900s. In researching this line via U.S. census documents, I have found the last name to be spelled multiple different ways, including 'Heriford' and 'Hurford.' I have been able to find what seems to be the same family members in different census documents, but it is hard to be sure with the spelling changes. How do I accurately put together my family tree when it seems that this family surname has been reported with various spellings over time?" --Cleo Hereford

For genealogists of all levels, finding a document with a variation in the spelling of a name, or date that is slightly off, can confuse the research process. Although some parts of a record might seem like they may be describing your ancestor, small differences can raise big questions. There are many reasons for these variations, and knowing why these happen will help guide your research.

Why Spelling Variations Happen

First, when looking at any source, it is important to understand who is providing the information recorded in the document. For census records, it was common for one person to give the information for the entire household. If your ancestors were boarders in a household, the person giving the information to the census taker may not be very familiar with your ancestors and would give an approximate birth year or the wrong surname.

Even birth and death records can be incorrect, depending on who was reporting the information. For example, if one of your ancestors survived their spouse and all of their children, a more distant relative, such as a niece, nephew or grandchild might be giving information for the death certificate. This relative may not know the spelling of a maiden name, place of birth or an exact birth date. All of these things could lead to inaccurate information being recorded on a document. 

You also have to consider who was creating the record. Again, for census records, the census taker might just be writing down the name as it sounds without asking about the spelling. Furthermore, census takers could have made a mistake when they were writing down the information, or it was copied over incorrectly later.

In addition to these possible mistakes, in the past it was more common to have variations in spellings of surnames. In very early records, like those in the late 17th- and early 18th-century Colonial America, it was common for both given and surnames to have several spelling variations. There are even examples of names being spelled differently within the same document.

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In African-American genealogy, especially in the years immediately after the Civil War, there is the additional challenge that arises from the fact that African Americans were not granted the same educational opportunities as free whites. Given this, formerly enslaves African Americans were not taught how to read or write, and this is another reason why the spelling of a surname may vary.

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