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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Jewish American Newspapers for Genealogy at GenealogyBank

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott writes about the ten Jewish American newspapers available in GenealogyBank’s online newspapers collection, and showcases some of the types of articles and information that can be found in these newspapers.

I spent a lot of my youth growing up in a small Ohio town whose lifeblood for the news was our local, community newspaper. Having this “paper route” was my first true job and other than one mix-up with an unhappy dachshund, it was a great job that gave me an early appreciation for how much people looked forward to their morning newspaper (and its timely delivery). So it is that I am pleased to see that GenealogyBank.com offers ten Jewish American newspapers in its database for all genealogists to use.

The ten Jewish American newspapers on GenealogyBank.com can be found in two locations on the website.

The following four Jewish American newspaper titles are in the Historical Newspaper Archives collection:

The following six titles are in the Recent Newspaper Obituaries collection:

One of the best features of these Jewish American newspapers is that they have a focus on local members of their respective communities. As an example, while major city dailies might skip the “breaking news” that student Arthur Feller earned his degree in engineering, the Jewish Journal covered the story.

Arthur Feller Earns Degree in Engineering, Jewish Journal newspaper article 27 September 1968

Jewish Journal (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 27 September 1968, page 10

As you can see, this is a genealogist’s delight because this news article gives us exceptional details into his life, career, education, Eagle Scout achievement, parents’ names, and even a photograph of this young Jewish man. And this is just a single example.

There are also wonderful historical insights for us genealogists to glean from these Jewish American newspapers as well. One example is this 1920 article from the Jewish Daily News, which explains that the Jewish immigrants at Ellis Island would be able to participate in Rosh Hashanah services thanks to the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America.

Rosh Hashanah Services for Immigrants, Jewish Daily News newspaper article 2 September 1920

Jewish Daily News (New York, New York), 2 September 1920, page 8

I was captivated by this 1917 article from the Jewish Daily News. This moving letter, written by a soldier fighting in the horrific trench warfare of World War I, gives us a sad but unique view into the meaning of Rosh Hashanah at such a challenging time.

A Jewish Soldier's Soliloquy on Rosh Hashanah, Jewish Daily News newspaper article 16 September 1917

Jewish Daily News (New York, New York), 16 September 1917, page 12

In my personal genealogy I have struggled to find information about some of my ancestors who were placed in an orphanage. Because of this, I was pleased to find several articles in the Jewish Chronicle that included names and details of some of the children living in this orphanage. One example is this 1941 article, which reported on the final preparations for a Bar Mitzvah at the Hebrew Orphanage and Sheltering Home in Newark. This article not only reports the names of the “Bar Mitzvah Boys” (Walter Levy and Abraham Feigenbaum), but also provides a fine photograph of these youngsters.

Orphanage Ready for Celebration of Bar Mitzvah Fete, Jewish Chronicle newspaper article 10 January 1941

Jewish Chronicle (Newark, New Jersey), 10 January 1941, page 1

Local, ethnic and community newspapers can be an excellent source of very specific and complete information to assist us in our genealogical journeys. I encourage you to use these ten Jewish American newspapers on GenealogyBank.com to help with your own family history research.

Here is a printable list of the Jewish American newspapers on GenealogyBank for future reference. Feel free to share this on your blog or website using the embed code provided below.

Jewish Newspaper Archives GenealogyBank

American Immigrant Story: 1837 Shipwreck Ruins the Trip

Our ancestors have made the long trip to America starting with the days of the Pilgrims. These were not easy journeys and some ended in disaster. Here is a riveting newspaper account from an article written in 1837 showing just how brutal the trip to America could be.

Disastrous Shipwreck, Newark Daily Advertiser newspaper article 5 January 1837

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 5 January 1837, page 2

The barque Mexico left Liverpool, England, in October 1836 with a 12-man crew and 104 passengers on board. Two-thirds of the passengers were women and children.

Two months after departing, the ship made it to the coast of New Jersey on Saturday, December 31, 1836. But, like an airplane waiting for the designated gate to open, the Mexico had to sit offshore with another “thirty or more square rigged vessels” waiting for a guide ship to pilot them in to the docks.

The sea was rough that day, and a gale-force wind blew them fifty miles from the port. It was now January 1837, the weather was not cooperating, and half the crew “were badly frost-bitten.” They could only remain above deck for 30 minutes at a time.

Soundings were taken but were not accurate. As the newspaper article explains: “The event has shewn that the information given by the mate as to the depth of water was incorrect; his error probably arose from the lead line being frozen stiff at the time it was cast.”

The captain, thinking that the water was deep enough for him to remain in place, dropped anchor. But as the tides shifted the ship “struck the bottom, 26 miles east of Sandy Hook at Hempstead beach, and not more than a cable’s length from the shore.”

A bad situation for the ship out at sea was growing worse… “The scene that ensued on board, we leave to the reader’s imagination.”

The Mexico’s life boats were deployed, but they were quickly smashed by the pounding waves. Finally a rescue boat came out from the shore to help the stricken ship and eight men—including Captain Winslow—jumped in and headed back to shore, escaping the Mexico.

What? The captain was one of the first to desert the ship?

The remaining ship passengers and crew, despite the fierce cold, gathered on the deck—watching the shore to see if more rescue boats would come out to save them.

None did.

“When they perceived that no further help came from the land their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and continued through the night until they one by one perished.”

Their remains were found in the morning “lashed to different parts of the wreck embedded in ice.”

“None, it is believed, were drowned, but all frozen to death.”

The Newark Daily Advertiser published the Mexico’s sad shipwreck story, including a list of the passengers who died.

GenealogyBank gives you the news as your ancestors’ lived it.

list of dead passengers from shipwreck, Newark Daily Advertiser newspaper article 5 January 1837

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 5 January 1837, page 2

Got Burnout? Go Play in a Genealogy ‘Playground’

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains what he does to refresh himself when experiencing genealogy burnout after hitting a brick wall in his family history research.

One of the most common concerns I hear from genealogists is burnout. It can happen to anyone, especially after a difficult period of hitting a “brick wall” in your family history research. This got me to thinking about what I did at times in my life when I felt a case of burnout coming on. Most frequently, I recalled, it seemed to attack me in elementary school…almost every day, in fact. Then I remembered recess and the playground!

When I was a youngster in school, recess was my favorite time of day—next to dismissal when the school day ended. At recess I’d race to the playground just to see what was exciting, what was new, who was there, and what fun I could have. I’d come back in for the afternoon refreshed and ready for schoolwork again.

For me, GenealogyBank.com sometimes functions as my “Genealogy Playground.” In addition to being one of my primary “Go To” genealogy resources, it is also the place I love to go just to see what I can find, learn, have fun with, and almost always discover something to add to my family tree. Plus, the knowledge of history that I gain from GenealogyBank’s large newspaper archive helps me better understand the times and world of my ancestors.

In just half an hour of genealogy play time, I can find some great stuff! In my most recent case of “30-minute recess” I found fascinating articles simply by searching on the terms “immigration statistics,” “Berea, Ohio,” and “WPA Writers’ Project.”

In my first search I discovered some interesting statistics on immigration from the fiscal year ending June 30, 1896.

Italy Heads the List, Emporia Gazette newspaper article 18 July 1896

Emporia Gazette (Emporia, Kansas), 18 July 1896, page 1

This historical newspaper article listed the countries of origin and the numbers of immigrants to the United States from each country. I was surprised to learn that Italy was first in total number of immigrants that year, and found it enlightening that from the total number of hopeful immigrants, over 3,000 were rejected for being “paupers,” “convicts and laborers,” “idiots,” “insane,” and/or “diseased.”

Then I came across a fun historical gem about my own hometown. I always knew that Berea, Ohio, was called “The Grindstone City,” but I knew next to nothing beyond the fact that as a boy I enjoyed swimming in the abandoned quarries that had filled with water.

Letter from Berea, Ohio, Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper article 2 June 1869

Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio), 2 June 1869, page 1

This old news article explained to me the whole business of quarrying, making, and marketing the famous Berea Grindstones.

Since I am a fan of, and interested in, the Works Public Administration (WPA) and especially its Writers’ Project, I conducted that search in the archives next. I am fascinated as a genealogist and family historian that this project employed some incredible writers and also created significant and priceless Americana. With a quick online search I found (among the more than 350 newspaper articles) an interesting story.

Schools Carry Out WPA Writers' Project, Oregonian newspaper article 3 May 1936

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 3 May 1936, page 3

This historical news article intrigued me as it explained that a teacher, in partnership with the WPA Writers’ Project and its United States Guides series, created a school history project. The old article states: “Pupils of these schools collected information relative to local Indians, pioneer characters and incidents, and buildings and sites of historical interest.” How I would love to read those stories about those Indians and pioneers! I bet they held some priceless insights and information, especially from the perspective of youngsters.

So, in spending just half an hour playing in GenealogyBank I had some great experiences, was refreshed, and gained some great knowledge.

My advice for genealogists experiencing burnout? Don’t forget how fun and invigorating recess can be!

Italian Immigrant Ancestor Helped Carve Mount Rushmore!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows what he found in newspapers about a friend’s ancestor who helped carve Mount Rushmore.

Almost all of us have stories of immigrant ancestors who came to the United States and toiled to make a better life for themselves and their families. Many, like mine, did so in relative anonymity. However, not too long ago I came across one immigrant to America who did his toiling in plain sight…and I mean really in plain sight!

photo of Luigi Del Bianco carving the left eye of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore

Luigi Del Bianco carving the left eye of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. Photograph credit: Windows Live Photo Gallery.

A few weeks ago I was working on my wife’s Italian ancestry, especially her immigrant grandparents who came to America from the Molise district of central Italy. As I was working on this, I received an email from Lou Del Bianco. Lou’s family also came from Italy to the United States in search of the proverbial “better life.” While my wife’s ancestors were miners and agricultural laborers, Lou’s grandfather, Luigi Del Bianco, was different. He was a classically-trained sculptor, who as a young man studied in Austria and Venice.

Lou had quite a story to tell and he was interested in having it promoted on my website (http://OnwardToOurPast.com) and on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/OnwardToOurPast). Once I heard the basics of Lou’s story, I was hooked!

So naturally the first thing I did was click over to GenealogyBank.com to see what I might find on Lou’s grandfather, Luigi. As usual, I was not disappointed and I was able to add to Lou’s knowledge about his grandfather and his work.

The first story that I found was an article explaining Luigi’s arrival on his job: as Chief Carver on Mount Rushmore! Yep, the Mount Rushmore! As I said, this story is about one immigrant who “did his toiling in plain sight”!

According to the newspaper article, Luigi was the right-hand man to Gutzon Borglum, the driving force and lead on the Mount Rushmore project.

Borglum Aide Arrives to Assist in Rushmore Work, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 4 May 1933

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota) 4 May 1933, page 10

While there were over 400 men working on the giant carving, Luigi was one of only two trained sculptors, and as a result was named as the Chief Carver by Borglum. He spent an amazing seven years carving on the Mount Rushmore monument from 1933 to 1940.

As I continued to search in GenealogyBank.com’s online newspaper archives, I found some great stories about the carving of the Mount Rushmore memorial. I enjoyed an old news article published in the Tampa Tribune from 1927, when the Mount Rushmore project was still little more than an idea in Borglum’s head.

Start Soon Carving Head of Washington on Mount Rushmore, Tampa Tribune newspaper article 31 March 1927

Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), 31 March 1927, page 23

The following historical newspaper article reports the hilarious exchange of telegrams between Borglum and President Calvin Coolidge regarding the history that President Coolidge wanted carved on Mount Rushmore, and Borglum’s attempt to cut the wordy President’s text down to size.

For Intimate Correspondence, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 29 May 1930

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 29 May 1930, page 6

Here is an old news article reporting that Luigi kept a life-size cast of the fist and arm of famed Italian heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera in his studio—a  model which folks often mistook for a sledgehammer!

Hills Sculptor Knew Carnera as Youth in Italy, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 29 June 1933

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 29 June 1933, page 2

I have since learned even more about Luigi Del Bianco, this amazing Italian American immigrant, who—although  not well known—accomplished some of the best known work in our entire nation, artistic carving that millions of tourists have viewed with awe and wonder.

In addition to reading about Luigi on GenalogyBank.com you can also discover more about his life and work at http://www.luigimountrushmore.com, or you can see how the hit television show Cake Boss recently baked a Mount Rushmore cake in honor of Luigi on Lou’s website at http://www.findlou.com.