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.
Narrowing Down the Possibilities
Knowing these limitations, there are some tips and tricks you can use that will help you avoid some of these pitfalls. If you are searching census records and your ancestor has a somewhat unique given name, try searching just using the person’s first name, date and place of birth. This will return results where the surname is spelled completely wrong or recorded incorrectly. You can use other clues, such as other known family members or occupation to help verify that you did in fact find a record of your ancestors with the surname spelled wrong.
If you have an idea of where your ancestor lived but you are not finding them when you search for them in census collections, you might try browsing each record page by page until you find a possible record of your family based on the given names and ages of the family members.
If you do find a census record that seems to be a record of your ancestor, but you are still not sure, you can use other clues from the nearby census pages to help you confirm. You can also ask questions such as: Are the names and birthdates of the children and siblings similar to the family you are researching? Are there any other known siblings or parents living nearby? The more information you find about the people in each of these potential records of your ancestors, the more you will be able to piece together the parts of their lives to confirm whether or not these records with incorrect spelling are in fact for your ancestors.
Newspapers and city directories are other sources that can help you confirm a misspelled document. For example, the 1900 Huntsville, Ala., directory may show that a John Hereford lived at 123 Main Street, while the census shows that John Heriford lived at 123 Main Street. With these two records, you can deduce that there was probably a spelling error in at least one of the documents.
You can also use the information you find in the census records to try to trace the person forward to determine whether or not you have found a record of your ancestor. Let’s say, hypothetically, you find a man named John Heriford in the 1910 census. According to this record, he was born in 1860 in Alabama, married to a 38-year-old woman named Jane and working as a laborer.
You then search for records of this man in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census, and you find a John Hurford who was 49 years old, born in Alabama, working as a laborer and living with his wife, Jane. In all likelihood, these are probably records of the same person, but from your own family records you have an old death certificate that shows that your ancestor John Hereford, of the same age and birthplace, died in 1918. Given this, you know that the record from 1910 is probably not a record of your ancestor because this same person is still alive in 1920.