Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Family History Hints, Part 7

Genealogists understand that the spelling of a name is a fluid thing, over the years; but often our clients, "newbies," and those not familiar with our field are very stubborn about accepting alternative spellings of the name with which they identify. We understand, but the Genealogy Roadshow staff did not always do so. Sometimes the spelling controversy confused folks so it was necessary to educate on this element of genealogy research.

               What’s is a name?

“We don’t spell the name that way,” is something I hear a lot at the National Archives and the Family History Center, where I volunteer. The fact is, if a surname hasn’t been altered over the years, I am quite surprised! Whether the name is Smith (Smyth, Smythe, Smid, Smeth, etc.) or something less common like Chlarson (Clarson, Claussen, Charlson, etc.), finding a name spelled different ways within a set of records (or even on a single record) is more common than people think.

Why the alternate spellings? Often it goes back to the time when people couldn’t read or write and they had no idea how to spell their names (first, middle, last). If asked, they might say, “It’s spelled just like it sounds!” (That way they didn’t have to admit having ignorance about their own monikers.) So “Trapschuh” comes out Trapshoe, Troppschuh, and any number of other variations. Also, the writing itself is often hard to decipher. In Gothic German, an “h” frequently looks like a “g,” and vice versa, so the “original” “Trappschug” ended up “Trapschuh.” No surprise there. In the Old English, the “thorn” is often misread (it should be read as “th,” but appears more like a “y”). So a common error in transcription of “the people arrived” is changed to “ye people arrived.” That actually changes the meaning!

Some people’s names were changed when they came to “the new country” and altered the spellings so that they appeared more American. Germans might drop the umlaut over the U (ΓΌ) or write it in an alternate manner: “ue,” which means the same thing. Sometimes, if their name meant something specific, such as an occupation, they would translate it into English. Mueller then became Miller (the direct translation). Schneider became Taylor or Tailer.

Some people changed names to reflect their situation (I already discussed the common name “Freeman” to describe the person who gained freedom for something or another). Some changed them to disguise who they were or their relationships to others of the same name (after the Oklahoma bombing there were instances of people named McVeigh who changed their names legally to avoid stigma). Then there is my friend whose father hated his surname - Druckenmuller - and changed it to “Graves” (that’s supposed to be more pleasant??). She didn’t find out until she was an adult.

Whatever the reason for the changes, Genealogists need to be mindful of alternate spellings. While many search programs will check these (e.g., if I enter “Wilcox” into a search, it will check for “Welcox,” “Willcocks,” and even “Wilcockson” . . . some even add “Wilson,” though that doesn’t compute in the Soundex style search - topic for another day). But these programs will not check for non-obvious alternate first letters. My Yucker family also goes by Yonker, Jucker, Yuker, and Euchre (as well as other variations), so if I am checking an index for the name (say, the DAR Patriot Index), I need to look under “E,” “J,” and “Y,” and may check “U” as well, just in case. If the index is spread over 4 or 5 (or more microfilms, I have to order all the ones that might be applicable). More time and money.

So there you have it: in genealogy, spelling doesn’t count, except when it is your time and money spent to find the elusive ancestor.

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