A Frightful Morass: Name Variations and Genealogy

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By Claire Wang

If you’ve ever used Census records to hunt down family members, you may have noticed something unusual about your ancestor’s name. 

Join us for the inaugural meeting of the Pratt Genealogy Circle on Saturday, December 8, 2012 from 10am-Noon.

Perhaps you didn’t find your family on the Census at all. Although there are a number of reasons why they could be “missing,” one common cause is that the listed names are radically different from the ones people used in real life. 

Example: You are trying to track down a family member named Lena, who does not appear in any Census records prior to 1930. One possibility is that the relative whom you always knew as, “Lena,” used a nickname throughout her life, and family members never knew her full or proper name. When the Census enumerator knocked on Lena’s door, the occasion may have prompted her to give her full name. In the absence of corroborating or supporting documentation (such as a birth certificate), it’s up to you to determine what her real name might have been. Was it Elena, Helena, Selena? Or was her proper name something less apparent, such as Paulina or Mandelina?

Isabel name variations

Although many present-day nicknames run along the lines of common variations (such as William/Bill) and are easy to decipher, others—especially those used in previous centuries—are much less intuitive to us in the present day. You may not know, for instance, that Jean and Jane were often interchangeable, that Bedelia and Fidelia were variants of Delia, or that Ib, Nibby, Tibby, and Issy, all trace their roots to Isabel.

In other circumstances, nicknames may not have played a role at all; Census records and other family documentation are often rife with misspellings. Although most family historians are conscious of variations and spelling differences, even less-challenging deviations may still lead to ambiguity. In worst-case scenarios, spelling issues may obscure an ancestor’s identity to such an extent that researchers will overlook certain records altogether.

1810 U.S. Census page Unfortunately this scenario is common in family research. On a UK message board one bemused researcher described a painstaking, five year-long search for an individual named Sarah Horsfield. When the UK Census failed to show a match for that surname (and other predictable variations), the searcher immediately assumed that Sarah and her family had moved away. But something didn’t feel right. Subsequent searches for the Horsfields’ neighbors in other Census records allowed the researcher to narrow down the possibilities, which showed that Sarah and her family were listed in the Census after all. So why didn’t the researcher find them? It turns out that their surname, Horsfield, had been recorded by the enumerator as Horsefeeder.

If the transition from Horsfield to Horsefeeder seems implausible, consider the case of a Pratt Library customer who recently attempted to locate an ancestor named Toliver Miller in the US Census. Both my co-worker and the customer were amused to find that, throughout the late 19th to early 20th century Census records, Toliver Miller had been recorded as Taliver Miller, Talcafen Miller, and Falifrom Miller. 

Getting around these roadblocks may be daunting, but it isn’t impossible. If you’ve encountered similar issues in your family research, it always helps to search for the names of immediate family members. If you know their address, and the Census enumerator recorded the street name and house numbers on the forms, it might be possible (albeit tedious) to find your ancestor by scrolling through the pages. 

You may also have heard of a popular tool called the soundex indexing system, which helps researchers find surnames that have been recorded with various spellings. From the National Archives: “The soundex is a coded surname (last name) index based on the way a surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently, like SMITH and SMYTH, have the same code and are filed together.”

American Family Names book setIf you’re still stumped, the Pratt Library offers several genealogy resources that may help; our Genealogy on the Web guide contains links to the soundex surname index and the RootsWeb surname list. Please also check out the family history and surname books in our catalog—and don’t miss one of our favorite reference items, the Dictionary of American Family Names.

First-time and experienced genealogists are also invited to swap family history anecdotes at the inaugural meeting of the Pratt Genealogy Circle on Saturday, December 8, 2012 from 10am-Noon.

Thank you for this idea -- will keep it in mind when trying to track some of our names. And what intriguing examples of changes!
Posted by: Erin Kelly at 10/11/2012 9:34 p.m.

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