How to Find Your Ancestors’ Name Abbreviations & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary tackles a problem many genealogists encounter: how to find newspaper articles about your ancestors when editors often abbreviated or hyphenated your ancestors’ names.

So much has been written on searching newspapers for ancestors whose names have challenging spellings (see the links at the end of this article), but little has been written on dealing with ancestor name abbreviations and hyphenations. With narrow columns, newspaper editors often made adjustments in spacing to make an article fit. A wide variety of name abbreviations, hyphenations and spelling changes were used – as a result, genealogists’ queries often miss their targets.

Ancestor Name Abbreviations

Names are often shortened to accommodate character spacing issues, and this poses a challenge for genealogists searching old newspapers.

Using abbreviations was even seen as a problem in the 19th century.

An Age of Abbreviations, New York Herald newspaper article 13 December 1891

New York Herald (New York, New York), 13 December 1891, page 26

In 1826 there was a proposed New York state amendment that would have disqualified votes if a common abbreviation was used for the name on the ballot. The examples cited were “Alexr.,” “Wm.” and “Jno.” (Alexander, William and Jonathan). If these abbreviations were used on the ballot, then the proposed amendment would require that “it would be imperative to reject all votes.”

One state legislator rose to oppose the amendment, pointing out that use of abbreviations was common on ballots.

article about legislation concerning the use of abbreviations, Albany Argus newspaper article 7 February 1826

Albany Argus (Albany, New York), 7 February 1826, page 1

On a humorous note, the debate on abbreviations fell along geographical lines. Gen. Root was opposed to the proposed amendment based on the orthography and the dilemma of the many “Yankee electors” who “might be puzzled occasionally to write correctly the name of their candidate.”

article about legislation concerning the use of abbreviations, Albany Argus newspaper article 7 February 1826

Albany Argus (Albany, New York), 7 February 1826, page 1

Resources for Finding Name Abbreviations

Several guides can be found on the web for finding name abbreviations. I recommend browsing several, since in one you may find “Abraham” abbreviated as “Ab.,” while another guide might use “Abr.” or “Abram.”

More Abbreviations for Words & Terms

Lastly, don’t forget that other words were commonly abbreviated, and they aren’t always readily apparent.

Ancestor Name Hyphenations

Let’s look at common pitfalls and techniques to overcome hyphenation issues.

  • If a name was split at the edge of the page, one portion may be on one page and the remaining on the next. When this occurs the search engine may return an unwanted result or no results at all.
  • When a word is split in two, it can result in two words which a search engine misses. For example: if the word “carnation” was split, the result would be “car” and “nation.”
  • Search Tip: If your family names (given & surnames) can be broken into two words, such as “Newcomb,” search for the individual parts.
  • Another idea is to add a Boolean wildcard, such as an asterisk (*), to the end of a shortened named. For example: you could search for “New*” instead of “Newcomb.”
obituary for H. D. Newcomb, Evening Post newspaper article 18 August 1874

Evening Post (New York, New York), 18 August 1874, page 4

Customs & Common Expressions

Keep in mind that the customs of the day may have changed.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, births from common families were rarely published in newspapers.

When they were, sometimes just a parent’s name was recorded. This article from 1800 notes:

It is fashionable in England to announce the Births among the Nobility. As the fashion is creeping into this country, we must of course follow it.

birth announcement for the Augustus family, Impartial Register newspaper article 23 October 1800

Impartial Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 23 October 1800, page 3

Search Tip: If you notice a particular expression, such as “true American blood,” incorporate it in your query along with a date and location. By doing this, I was able to locate other notices celebrating American births.

birth announcement for the Read family, Gazette of the United States newspaper article 28 October 1800

Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 28 October 1800, page 2

Newspaper Scanning Issues

Due to technical limitations, historical newspapers cannot always be scanned flat when they’re being digitized for posting online. Occasionally small portions of the old news articles are truncated, so vary your queries by searching specific:

  • Dates
  • Locations
  • Types of Events

For example, notice that the left-hand edge of this newspaper article was not scanned.

marriage announcements, Richmond Whig newspaper article 19 January 1841

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), 19 January 1841, page 3

Try some of these genealogy search tips to overcome abbreviation and hyphenation issues, and perhaps you’ll finally find that long-sought newspaper article about your elusive ancestor!

Related Name Search Articles:

7 Tips on How to Find Elusive Ancestors in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary provides seven practical tips for searching hard-to-find ancestors in old newspapers.

While reading my mother’s Book of Ancestors recently I noticed she had little to say about one of our ancestors, because that person had kept himself out of the public records.

Forebears who didn’t hold public office, own property, or were married in churches or synagogues with lost or private records, are difficult to document. These elusive ancestors can also be difficult to find in historical newspapers, but sometimes they can be found in creative ways. This article gives seven search tips to help find those tricky ancestors in old newspapers.

illustration of Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass

1) Pay Attention to “Please Copy” Notices

When something noteworthy occurs such as a birth or death, news is first printed locally.

If that person has ties to other areas, then other newspapers may carry the story. Newspapers may do this either on their own accord, or at the request of the original publisher. What you want to watch out for is a “please copy” notice, which can be a valuable clue that your ancestor had ties to another part of the country where you might find additional articles or records about him or her.

In the newspaper article below from New Orleans, Louisiana, we see many examples of “please copy” notices.

  • Jesse Sands, formerly of Pittsburg, and his wife Jessie M. Olmsted, passed away within two days of each other. The end of their death notice says: “Newburg, N.Y. and Pittsburg, Pa. papers please copy.” So for these two ancestors, you want to include New Orleans, Newburg and Pittsburgh in your searches.
  • J. West Murphy died in Louisiana, but was described as “late of Philadelphia.” The end of his death notice says: “Philadelphia papers please copy.”
  • The end of Virginia B. Harrison’s death notice says: “Philadelphia and Cincinnati papers please copy.”
  • The end of John Gunderman’s death notice says: “St. Louis papers please copy.”

Because these death notices were originally published in a New Orleans newspaper, you want to search that area for more news about your ancestor. But thanks to these “please copy” notices, you are given additional locations for further searching.

death notices, Times-Picayune newspaper article 23 August 1853

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 August 1853, page 2

2) Know Your Resource: Understanding the Differences between Small Town & Metropolitan Newspapers

Depending upon the population of a town or city, news will vary. Reasons include:

  • Unless a person was well known, there may be inadequate space to present long articles in newspapers from areas of high population.
  • In smaller towns this is not the same issue, so there is a tendency toward longer descriptions of events such as weddings and arrests.
  • In smaller towns, you may also see more “gossipy” news.
  • If a lengthy feature was carried in a hometown paper, another may feel it only deserves minimal coverage, or the opposite may be true. Minimal coverage in one newspaper may result in extended details in another.
  • Some publishers may wish to sensationalize or downplay news. Once while researching a hometown newspaper, I found that a neighboring town paper was happy to publish the lurid details of a person’s arrest. It was not published in his hometown newspaper, perhaps to protect the family.

3) Name Variations

People are usually known by a variety of monikers, both formal and informal. Keep in mind that this is the rule, rather than the exception, so don’t ever limit searches to just one version of a name. Include titles, nicknames, initials, middle names without first names, and other variations. For example:

  • John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith
  • J. J. Smith or J. J. J. Smith
  • Jacob or Jingleheimer Smith
  • Mr. Smith or simply Smith
  • Thomas Edison or Mr. Edison
  • The Wizard of Menlo Park
  • Mary Stillwell
  • Dot Stillwell (her childhood nickname)
  • Thomas Edison’s first wife
  • Mrs. Edison
  • Mina Edison or Mina Miller
  • Thomas Edison’s second wife

4) Spelling Variations and Name Changes – Consider Using a Wildcard

One of the most vexing issues occurs with spelling variations, which occur all too often.

An example can be noted with my husband’s birth surname of Szczesniak. Since others were prone to misspelling it, the family had it legally shortened to Sesniak. Unfortunately, that didn’t work as typos are frequent. One of the most common is to change the ending to “ck,” rather than “ak.”

Name changes can be informal. A woman I know was named Jane. It’s a fine name, but prone to various putdowns, including “plain Jane.” Rather than be labeled with this throughout her life, she elected to change the spelling to Jayne.

We see similar variations in the given name of Mary. I use the traditional spelling, but there are many variations including:

  • Mamie, Maria, Mariah, Marie, May, Meg, Merry, Merrie, Moll, Mollie, Molly, Pollie, Polly, etc.

If you wish to search newspapers and databases for similar spellings, sometimes a wildcard will work.

There are two types: an asterisk “*” which searches for any number of characters in a name; or a question mark “?” which replaces just one letter. For example:

  • Merr* would query the database for any name beginning with Merr, such as Merry or Merrie, followed by any combination of letters. If a woman were named Merriweather, it would also find it.
  • Sebasti?n would return both Sebastian or Sebastien.

Also see prior articles on ancestor name research tips for tips on searching for first names, surnames, name spelling variations and more.

5) Overcoming Language Barriers in Foreign-Language Newspapers

Many online collections of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, contain foreign-language newspapers. GenealogyBank, for example, has some newspapers in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

What do you do if you find your ancestor’s name in a foreign-language newspaper, but are not sure what the article is saying about him or her?

There are a number of free online translators available, where you can type in the text from the foreign-language newspaper and receive an English translation.

For example, what if you found this article about your ancestor Georg Clifforeye?

Heiratete seine Grossmutter.

CALAIS, Me., 28 Oktober. Der 18 Jahre alte Georg Clifforeye heiratete seine Grossmutter Rebecca Louise Garnett von St. Stephen N.B., Canada, und begab sich dann mit ihr nach seiner Wohnung, aber kaum war er dort angelangt, erschien Rev. Gaucher, der has liebende Paar getraut hatte und verlangte den Trauschein, wobei er ihm die $10 Traugebühren retournierte und die Heirat für illegal erklärte, wegen der…

By plugging this text into Google Translate or Bing Translator, we uncover a startling story about the young man attempting to marry his grandmother!

wedding announcement, New Yorker Volkszeitung newspaper article 29 October 1922

New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York, New York), 29 October 1922, page 2

6) Social Notices Provide Many Clues

Many newspapers carried social notices, such as the below example from the Dallas Morning News, reporting the comings and goings of many friends and relatives.

These social columns in newspapers provide wonderful research clues to track your ancestor’s activities as well as personal relationships.

social column, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 June 1904

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 June 1904, page 10

7) Broaden Your Searches

Lastly, if you are in the habit of narrowing ancestor searches with specific dates, get in the habit of broadening the ranges.

Marriage details can extend for months, if not years. Look for engagement notices, bridal showers, banns notices, wedding descriptions, honeymoon reports and even “the happy couple has returned” articles.

Death reporting can also extend over long time periods. Right after passing, you’ll find death notices and obituaries, but some may be published long afterward. I’ve seen an obituary as long as one year after someone died. Also watch for legal notices pertaining to probate, which can occur many years after your ancestor died.

Don’t forget to think outside the box. Some reports are made in error. Even with their mistakes, they can contain valuable personal information. One of my favorite examples was addressed in my article The Lessons of Daniel Boone’s Obituary: Check and Double Check.

I hope these seven search tips will help you break through some brick walls and find those elusive ancestors who didn’t leave many records behind – but may well be found in the pages of old newspapers. Good luck with your family history research!

Related Articles:

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,)

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.