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Relearning the Spelling of Your Surnames
– George G. Morgan

One of my greatest challenges in my early genealogy research was locating a great-great-grandfather in the 1850 census records of Caswell County, NC. You see, I knew my great-grandmother's name was Caroline Alice Whitfield. This was evident from her marriage license and other documents. I searched, census page by census page, for other Whitfields in the 1840 and 1860 censuses, but could find no evidence of her father. It finally dawned on me that there may have been a spelling variation on the surname.

I spent a while jotting down creative spellings, both logical and absurd, and then returned to the printed census index books. Sure enough, I found what was almost too obvious—that her father spelled his surname as Whitefield. Once past that temporary roadblock, I found all sorts of census, land, property, tax, court, probate, and other records for William A. Whitefield and for his children from his two marriages.

I learned my lesson well, and it has served me well over the years. I've encountered much less obvious surname spellings that, once known, opened wide the floodgates for other records. Examples have included: the Swords surname spelled as Soards, Sords and Swards; the Holder surname spelled (or copied) as Holden and Holler; the Monfort surname spelled as Montfort, Monford, Montford, Montedford, and Monforte; and the Pryor surname spelled as Prior and Priory.

In "Along Those Lines . . ." this week, I'd like to suggest ways of working with alternate spellings of your surnames in your research.

Developing a Strategy
You should recognize that surnames can be changed informally by the individual (such as the Whitfield/Whitefield change) or formally through a legal process to make an "official" name change. The most common occurrence seems to be that surnames are misspelled by accident. People were not as well-educated in the past as they are today. Sometimes a name on a document was written as it sounded, or perhaps it was simply misspelled by accident (as in the case of Swords and its variations above). In other cases, an individual may have changed the spelling of his/her surname to adopt a different air or perhaps to distance himself/herself with others of the same.

Consider the family surnames you are researching. I suggest that you select five of those surnames and write each surname at the top of a single sheet of paper. Spell the name as you think it should be spelled for your family's research purposes. Now, spend three minutes on each name trying to spell it different ways. Let's use the Smith surname as an example.

  • Try adding or subtracting letters (Smyth or Smythe).
  • Try spelling it as it might have been spelled in another language (Schmitt or Schmidt or Smid).
  • Try spelling it phonetically (Smith is pretty obvious, but can you think of other ways?).
  • Try developing other derivatives of the surname (Smitty, Smithy, Smithers, and Smathers).
  • Add superlatives or qualifiers to the base surname (Smithfield, Smithwood, Goodsmith, Hammersmith, Smithson, or others).
  • Try purposefully misspelling the surname as someone with less education might have done (Smit, Simith, Stith, Smish, Simish, etc.).
Once you have completed these lists, you may want to reexamine your dead-end ancestors and relatives. You now have new, alternate research paths to explore. Could one or more of these alternative spellings demolish your brick wall?

Tools for Exploring Alternative Spellings
Valuable tools for researching possible alternative spellings are the Soundex and Miracode microfilm. The Soundex system was used in the 1930s by the WPA for the Social Security Administration. The SSA needed a way to identify people who would be eligible to receive old-age benefits, specifically those people who were born in the 1870s and later. Soundex cards were produced for some states beginning with the 1880 census for families with children aged ten and under. Soundex was also used for the 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses, with Miracode, a similar "sounds-like" system, being added for other states in the 1910 census. Soundex, for instance, provides a scheme whereby each surname can be translated into a four-position code. The first position is the first letter of the surname, followed by numbers representing remaining consonants in the surname. Vowels are omitted, and some other sounds and double-consonant rules apply. The resulting code helps locate sound-alike names.

Please bear in mind that not all censuses for all states for these years were encoded and had cards produced. However, for those that were, Soundex microfilm is available at the National Archives, at some larger libraries with genealogical collections, and in LDS Family History Centers™. The reels contain microfilmed images of the Soundex cards created by WPA employees from the respective censuses. They are organized by state and then by Soundex code, thereby grouping all sound-alike names with the same Soundex code together. Each Soundex number group is then arranged in alphabetical sequence by given name (or initials). There are exceptions where the microfilming sequence was interrupted or intervening record cards were misfiled, but this is more or less the organizational scheme you can expect.

Soundex microfilm can be a real boon to your research. A scan through the group for a surname you are researching can be an eye-opening experience. You will certainly find surnames grouped together that you might never expect, and certainly many examples of alternative surname spellings. Working with Soundex, therefore, can provide you with a list of helpful alternative spellings that can keep providing possible leads in your research. Detailed descriptions of Soundex and Miracode instructions for how to develop the code for each surname, and details about the states whose records were encoded and microfilmed, can be found in the book "The Source" (see bibliography below).

Important tools you should also include in your research are census indexes. There are printed indexes for each state from 1790 through 1870, and the AIS Census Indexes database is available to subscribers. (It contains federal non-population schedules and some state censuses as well.) Using the indexes and this searchable database with the surnames and alternate spellings you have developed may help you to quickly locate the specific county and page in the census on which your research subject is listed.

Another tool often overlooked by researchers is the city directory. If they exist, city directories and even telephone directories can be sources of excellent information. They are especially valuable in pointing you to land and property records, and may even reveal occupations and employers. They, too, may contain spelling errors that place your ancestor's name on a different page than where you might expect to locate him or her.

Expect the Unexpected
Surname variations can confound even the most experienced researcher. The oddest and most unexpected spellings can stymie a research line that seems to be progressing quite nicely.

Also, don't ignore the fact that there may be alternative spellings of given names. Margaret may be Peggy, Edward may be Ned, and as I found in my own line, Ansibelle may be Annie, Nancy, or Nannie!

By preparing a list of possible alternate spellings of names and by keeping an open mind, you can expand your research options and possibly break through that brick wall to discover the details you seek.

Happy Hunting!


Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Incorporated, 1997.

George G. Morgan is a proud member of the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors, Inc. (ISFHWE). He would like to hear from you at, but due to the volume of e-mail received, he is unable to answer every e-mail message received. Please note that he cannot assist you with your individual research. Visit George's Web site for information about speaking engagements. George is also the author of The Genealogy Forum on America Online, which is available in the Ancestry Online Store.

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