Ancestral Name Searches: 4 Tips for Tracing Surname Spellings

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that ancestral surnames may have been spelled differently in the past—or been completely different altogether—and provides tips for searching for these ancestral name variations.

Earlier this year, I asked some Facebook friends to help with family research on surnames. This type of research can be tricky; some ancestral surnames had spelling variations—or were completely different names.

My friends answered with a range of responses: some reported minor spelling changes in their ancestors’ surnames, while others told of rather dramatic aberrations. After all, who would ever correlate the Bedenbaugh family with the name “Pitebag,” the Cal family with the name “Carroll,” or the Von Der Burg family with the name “Funderburg”!

My Question about Researching Surnames

This was my original Facebook request, with my friends’ replies summarized in the following chart:

I’m looking for ancestral surnames with many alternate spelling variations. For instance, Smith can be spelled Smyth or Smythe. Harrell can be Herrall, Horrall, Herald, etc. Also, looking for names of emigrants that were Americanized. Thanks in advance!

From Surname Variations / Comments
Cindi S. Amick: Emig, Emmick, Emmigh, Amig, Amik
Angela H. Ammons: Amonds, Emmons, Almons, Aman. Ammonds in Germany; Americanized to Ammons.
Jim B. Becherer: My “Becherer” ancestor changed it to Baker, although there are records where he was Becker and his tombstone is Bakar.
Cindi S. Bedenbaugh came from a Pitebag. That’s another one that has always been curious.
Victoria N. Calley, Colley, Collier, Callie, Cally, Colly
Judi C-T. Carroll, Carrell, Corall, Coral, Cal
Marge I. Cilley, Celley, Cealy, Seley, Sealey, Selley, so on, so on
Judy J-L. Cosky: Coskey, Kosky, Koskey, Koski, Koskie, Cuskie, Cusky—came across my ancestral name spelled all these ways on various documents.
Judy J-L. Deegan, Deagan, Dagen, Degan, and Deegen
Cindi S. Dominick, Dominy, Daming, and the oldest variation on this name that I could find: Durnermubhor?
Mary H-S. Ebling, Ebeling, Hebling, Eblinger
Sandy G. Finkenbinder: My grandmother was a Finkenbinder. It started in Germany as Fintboner, Finkboner, Finkbeiner, Finkenbeiner, Finkenbinder.
Cindi S. Fulmer, Folmer, Follmer, Volmer, Vollmer
Mary H-S. Harrell, Harel, Herald, Herrald, Horall, Horrell, Horald
Tammy H. Henney, Heney, Hanney, Hanny, Henny, Heaney, Haney…started as Hennig
Cindi S. Krell, Krelle, Crell, Crelle, Krehl, Kreil, Kreel, Creel, Crehl
Jim B. Langendoerfer: Within the space of two pages, the same census taker for the 1860 Census for Wayne County, PA, listed the four Langendoerfer brothers as: John Longdone, Winesdale (actually Wendell) Langerford, Jacob Longendoff, [and] Nicholas Longendiffer. He probably spoke to each of them on the same day along the same stretch of road. He never realized they were all saying the same name.[Cindi S.] It was a cold day and a little nip helped the census taker make his rounds…lol
Mary H-S. Miesse, Measey, Mease, Mise, Meise, spelled as Mȕsse in Germany
Leanne L. Ouderkerk: Ouderkirk, Oudekerk, Oudekirk, Oderkirk, Odekirk from Holland to New York mid 1600s
Monica C. Peats, Peets, Peetz, Pietz, Peet, Peat, Pyatt, Piatt…
Lisa F. Penny, Penney, Pinny, Pinney
Jessica R. Shultz, Schultz, Shulse, Shultze, Sholtz, Schulse…
Heidi N. Smith can also be an Americanized version of Schmidt, Schmeid, Schmitt, etc.
Mary H-S. Smith, Smyth, Smythe
Tammy H. Sweezey, Sweazy, Sweasey, Swazy, Swazey, Swasey, Sweezy, Swasy. From Germany via France.
Trish W. Von Der Burg family (Funderburg, Funderburgh, Funderburk, etc.)

So Which Surname Spelling Is Correct?

Although some genealogists may disagree, I believe the correct answer is: “most of them!”

Names morph, or change, on documents for a variety of reasons. Obvious reasons include ignorance (simply didn’t know the correct spelling) and sloppiness (typographical and handwriting issues)—but more complex reasons include other considerations.

In general, Old World names (given and last names) are, more often than not, converted from one spelling to another over time. Sometimes this evolves from alphabetical considerations, and other times from pronunciation or Anglicization issues.

Enter Last Name










1) Alphabetical Conversions

Alphabetical conversions occur when a letter from a foreign alphabet doesn’t exist in English—such as ones with accents or umlauts (ȕ). An example from the chart is the name Miesse, which was spelled in Germany as Mȕsse. In 17th and 18th century church and civil records, this name is predominantly recorded with an umlaut, but English-speaking settlers had to convert the ȕ to “i,” “ea” and “ie.”

2) Surname Anglicization for Legal Reasons

Families might deliberately change or Anglicize the spellings of their surnames. Sometimes this occurs in daily practice (not formalized), but at other times during a court filing.

An example in the Sesniak family occurred when the name was legally changed from the traditional Polish spelling of Szczesniak. As my husband Tom explains:

On first try, nobody could pronounce or spell our last name, so my father had it shortened. Uniquely, he kept the same pronunciation by dropping two zs and a c. Although it broke all family tradition and upset the grandparents [who did not join in the court filing], it was the right thing to do. They were rooted to their Polish community, but it was only a small part of America. Although they never lost their ethnic pride, my parents’ family immediately went from being Polish to Polish American.

3) Name Pronunciation Dilemmas

Whenever a surname is pronounced differently from what its written form would suggest, expect to find spelling variations—such as this example from my Irish ancestry.

Our family Bible recorded the name as Hoowee—causing some Fisher family cousins to doubt its authenticity. After visiting Ireland, we discovered that the name is spelled both as Hoowe and Hoowee in records.

photo of the name "Hoowee" spelled in the Mathias Fisher family Bible

Photo: the name “Hoowee” spelled in the Mathias Fisher family Bible. Source: in the possession of Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

Why it was changed, we’ll never know—but after discovering it is often pronounced “Who ee” rather than “How,” my theory is that the version “Hoowee” was chosen because it better reflected the correct pronunciation.

4) Recording Considerations

When examining records, always consider who recorded the information.

Was there an enumerator or interviewer—or did a family member write the information in original handwriting?

If a spelling variation came from a family member, perhaps this person was not very literate. If it came from an enumerator, the name might have been written the way the enumerator heard it (phonetically or otherwise). Or perhaps a spelling was altered to reflect a personal cultural background.

Enumerator name variations are commonly reported by census researchers. (See the Langendoerfer example in the chart.)

Enter Last Name










The Ellis Island Myth

One of the most written-about American experiences is the arrival of immigrants to Ellis Island—but one of the most incorrectly repeated statements is that names were changed (or Anglicized) upon arrival at Ellis Island.

photo of the Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor, c.1904

Photo: Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor, c.1904. Source: Underwood & Underwood; Library of Congress.

This widely repeated myth is easily dispelled by focusing on the steps undertaken when passengers arrived in the port.

During the interview process, immigrants’ names were verified to see that they matched the names recorded on ship manifests, which had been created in foreign, not American, ports. If there were exceptions, it would arise if an immigrant disagreed with the recorded spelling.

(For an in-depth explanation, see the New York Public Library article at www.nypl.org/blog/2013/07/02/name-changes-ellis-island,)

What Are Your Family Spelling Variations?

If you’ve only uncovered 1-2 spelling variations for your family surname, I hope this article will inspire you to find more—and to consider reasons how and why they changed.

Please share your surname spelling examples with us in the comments section.

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Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

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15 thoughts on “Ancestral Name Searches: 4 Tips for Tracing Surname Spellings

  1. My maiden name: Coomler angelicized from Kumler.
    McAuley, McCauley, McAlly, McCally, etc
    Klinesmith, Kleinsmith, Klineschmidt, Clinesmith, Cline Smith, Kline Smith.

  2. The problem name in my genealogy is Hipshire, Huebscher, Hepshear, Hibsher, Hypsher, Hipshear, Hibscher, Hipsher, Hubscher, Hipshier, Hipshur. Brothers born after the Civil War didn’t agree on the proper spelling of their name.

    • Candy,

      That is an interesting list of spelling variations which reminds me of a story I read about the spelling of one of my ancestral surnames, Hubble of Hubbell.

      When the family didn’t agree, some siblings moved to different states. There are reports that some never spoke to each other again. Hope that didn’t happen in your family.

      Mary

  3. Lovan=Lavenne/Lavan/Lavanne/Levene/Laverne/Lavergne/Lovine

    Ryas=Riot/Rias/Ryas/Rious/Riouse/Rius/Ryos/Reis/Rhys/Rice

    Harland=Harlan/Harlin/Harlon/Holland/Hollin/Hollins

  4. Most of the examples you give are for “foreign” names which are difficult for anglicised pronunciation.
    My English maiden name of FOSKETT started life 11th – 15th century as FOXCOTT or FOXCOTE in England. This rapidly became FOSCOTT or FOSCOTE. FOSKETT became common in the 16th century to modern times. However, one village in Northamptonshire put an “r” in the name in the 18th century and FORSCUTT was born and in Northampton itself it became FORSKITT in the 19th century. In another part of England – Essex, local pronunciation gave rise to FOSGATE, FOSGET and FORSGATE.
    I obviously havent included the numerous examples of undoubling of “t”s or different vowels being used.
    I believe I am now up to about 65 different spellings.

    • Sandra,

      Thank you for writing and sharing these fine examples. I’m impressed with the knowledge you have regarding the etymology of your family surname.

      Mary

  5. I searched for my husband’s McLoy family for a long time and finally found them under from 1848 until 1885 under Mulloy, Malloy, and Maloy. I don’t know why it switched to McLoy, but that spelling doesn’t show up for decades.

    • Gaye,

      Thank you for sharing the surname variations. It would be interesting to learn why the spelling changed.

      Mary

  6. My Gearys were Guirys, Garys, Gerrys, Geareys, Gireeys and more, while the Purcells were variously Pursells, Purseels, … The Neary/Nary branch married the McKeon/Keon/Kane, and the Frier/Fraer marriage to a Shea/Shay produced my beloved grandfather. About the only just-plain name in my tree is Joy! This all reminds me of a college linguistic course where an early lesson involved tracing the transformation of the word FAGUS into BEECH. Taken step by step, it all made sense in July-August, 1972, but I cannot remember those steps to save my life!

    • Mary Beth,

      Thanks for writing.

      I also have McKeon ancestors, but they were more prone to spelling it McKeown or McKown. You might want to keep those variations in mind.

      Love the analogy to the linguistics course, as names vary drastically from country to country.

      Mary

  7. Hi, Mary,

    Were yours from Fermanagh, by any chance? Most of my research has been into my Gearys, of Ardmore, Waterford…had no idea till quite recently that part of the rest of me, if you will, was from Ulster. Though we’re all Catholics– I did know that Patrick et al. most likely were McKeon pre-Anglicization.

    Do you ever wonder if ours were part of the sad conflicts written about, then filmed, in Gangs of New York?

    Mary Beth

  8. I have many different names for the same line. Feld,Felde and Field is one. Weekes, Wick/s and Weeks. Bar(r)ow(e). which changed to Barrow then Barrows then Barrus which happened after most of a Barrows family died of an illness. The 2 remaining children were taken in by aunt and uncle. They were told they were spelling it wrong and it should be Barrus. A cousin in NYS told me part of the Barrus family has split as one side is spelling it Barris. They aren’t talking to each other. Mom and dad used to get Barris mail. I thought it was just misspelling but after doing this realize it might have been the way they thought it should be spelled. Barrus doesn’t always sound like it has u in it.

    • Jim,

      Thanks for sharing your surname experience.

      A similar story is reported about some of my Hubble cousins. The ones who spelled it Hubbell reportedly stopped speaking to the ones who spelled it Hubble causing one branch of the family to move out of state.

      Mary

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