Anticipate Alternate Surname Spellings
9/27/2009
Stumped by two John Smiths? Can't tell if Great-aunt Delia's also Great-aunt Bridget? Don't get caught playing the name game without our guide to untangling multiple monikers.

Forget what your fourth-grade teacher said: In genealogy, spelling doesn't count. You'll find your ancestors' names spelled all sorts of ways. Take your own name, first or last, and think of how many ways people have misspelled it. That's what happened with your ancestors' names. When clerks recorded your great-great-grandfather's name on official documents, chances are they didn't take the time to ask, "How do you spell that?" And that's assuming your ancestor even knew how to spell his own name. In fact, you may find your ancestor's name spelled two, three or four different ways within the same document.

Be careful not to wear blinders and miss your ancestor because his name's not spelled the way you think it should be. Yes, there are occasions when one branch of the family will change the spelling of its surname so as not to be associated with that other branch. But the clerk may not have known that your Smiths actually use the Smythe spelling.

Many researchers find it helpful to make a list of all the different spelling variations of an ancestor's name. Then, as they search for their ancestor in records and databases, they have the list to remind them to check under variant spellings. Take my surname, Carmack, for example. Spelling variations could include Cormack, Carmick, Cormick, Karmack, Kormack, Karmick and Kormick. Remember that printed and computerized indexes, databases, abstracts, transcriptions and sources such as city directories and newspapers also might contain typographical errors. If your ancestor's name was accidentally the victim of a typo, such as transposed letters—Acrmack, Cramack or Carmcak—you have even more variations to check. You just have to pray to the genealogy spirits that the typist didn't change or add new letters to your surname, making it Cammack or Carmach.