What Surname Spelling is Correct?
9/28/2009
Our expert advises a reader who's found multiple versions of her family's surname.
Q. We have a problem with different spellings of our name, Pargeon. Back to the great-grandfather it was spelled Pargin, Pargen and even DePearrygin, which we've been told is French. How do we tell which is correct?

A. Expect spelling variations of given names and surnames. Ancestors didn't always write or spell their names for clerks, and clerks recorded what they heard or thought they heard.

The correct name was whatever each family member used. Thus, the question is not necessarily finding one "correct" spelling but finding the correct ancestors. Look for original records on which ancestors wrote their own names; papers of this kind are often still within the family. Look for spelling variations in indexes and records as you research. Collect copies of a variety of records that are as close as possible to the original, rather than published transcriptions and abstracts. From such records that were contemporary with the ancestors, you may find a consensus on what the family considered the name to be or how they may have pronounced it.

Remember, different relatives may have used different spellings. As long as you have other matching information (right given names, times, places, relationships or other details), you can usually determine which records pertained to your family, regardless of the spelling of the surname.

Begin with yourself and prove your lineage backward, one generation at a time. When you feel you have reached the immigrant ancestor of this name, research him and his children thoroughly in US records. Let these records help you determine his birthplace. Even if the name is of French origin, the immigrant ancestor may not have come to the United States from France.