Genealogy Tip: Correct Spelling Isn’t Everything

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about the time she misspelled her ancestor’s name in her search – and the great benefits of making that “mistake.” Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

After finding the right newspaper(s) to search, one of the most challenging aspects of finding an ancestor is their name. Why? Our ancestors could be listed in the newspaper by any number of name variations, including initials substituting for a first and middle name, nicknames, and the countless possible misspellings of a first and last name. On top of that, women might be listed by their husband’s name – and all of the variations of his name. What’s a genealogist to do?

The answer: search more than one name variation and keep track of the possibilities you’ve tried. And here’s a tip that might not seem intuitive: don’t assume that the “correct” spelling of your ancestor’s name is the only – or even best – way to go.

I was reminded of this recently when I found an ancestor despite making a mistake in spelling his name.

Peterson or Petersen?

I searched GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for my grandmother’s maternal grandfather, Lars Petersen. Except that I accidentally spelled his last name Peterson (with an o instead of an e).

My initial search resulted in 1800 hits! I decided to narrow those results by just looking at Arizona newspapers, specifically the titles from Holbrook and Snowflake, since he lived part of his life in northern Arizona near those two cities.

Using the search tools on the left-hand side of GenealogyBank’s search results page allowed me to filter my results by location, which then narrowed the results to 91 hits – a number I could easily manage to go through.

As I was going through these results, I was excited to find Lars in numerous newspapers, chronicling: the death of his second wife; his third marriage; his daughter’s (my great-grandmother’s) illness; his World War I soldier son’s death from tuberculosis; and his comings and goings around town.

An article about Lars Peterson, Snowflake Herald newspaper article 19 October 1917
Snowflake Herald (Snowflake, Arizona), 19 October 1917, page 5

However, amidst the excitement of finding all of this information, I realized something was wrong: Lars’ last name was Petersen, not Peterson.

But searching on Lars Peterson did yield relevant results, so that “mistake” wasn’t a mistake at all – it revealed that there was more information out there that I had yet to find, using an incorrect spelling of his last name.

After checking all the Peterson results, I then needed to start again searching on the correct spelling of his name: Petersen with an “e.”

This search for Lars Petersen surprisingly only returned 507 results. Narrowing those results by the place again (Arizona and then Holbrook and Snowflake) returned 74 hits. What I found this time spanned notices of his homestead application, his visits to town, and the birth of a child.

An article about Lars Petersen, Snowflake Herald newspaper article 20 September 1915
Snowflake Herald (Snowflake, Arizona), 20 September 1915, page 2

In my first search, I misspelled his name – but so too did the newspaper reporters, and I ended up finding useful and interesting articles about his life.

But here’s a secret that’s vital to researching your family history: the correct spelling isn’t everything.

How important was it to do both name searches? Very! Each search brought new information that was missing from the other. If I had only completed one search, I would have missed important vital record information about Lars and his family, as well as stories that gave me a look at his everyday life.

And now I need to think of other variations of his first and last name, and do searches on those.

The Correct Spelling Isn’t Everything

The correct spelling isn’t everything, and when you assume that your ancestor was only known by one spelling, you can inadvertently miss big chunks of your ancestor’s story. I bet you’ve had times where your name was misspelled. I know I have. So why would you search for your ancestor using only one variation or spelling of their name?

Search again for that elusive ancestor. But this time, conduct multiple searches based on name variations.

Because correct spelling isn’t everything in genealogy.

8 thoughts on “Genealogy Tip: Correct Spelling Isn’t Everything

  1. The name “PAULY” is not only spelled, in Census records, as “Pauli,” BUT also the German sound for “au” was “ow.” Thus, one can find the entry for this surname as POWLY or POWLEY.

  2. “Spelling isn’t everything.” How true! I have so far found 7 spellings of the last name “Steinhoff.” Thank you for the article.

  3. A few years ago I was researching the “Cary” family in early Cincinnati. I started by using GenealogyBank and simultaneously searched 7 early Cincinnati newspapers between 1800 and 1840 just using the “Cary” spelling which had been used by that branch of the family since at least 1681. I found 96 hits in this search which took 3 hours to peruse. Then, on a whim, I decided to repeat the search using the more common “Carey” spelling and six hours later finished digesting the 200+ additional hits. There were no overlapping results between the two searches, but it was very clear from the first names that the results were being drawn from the same Cary/Carey population.

    1. Bob, thanks for that example. It’s important for researchers to remember that you need to consider how other people may have spelled your ancestor’s name. That’s a lot of hits to miss if you only looked at the “correct” spelling. Thanks for sharing that.

  4. Writ in Stone

    It’s not just spelling, but also dates that are wrong. Here’s an example of a gravestone that has both dob and dod apparently wrong:

    The stone is way too young for a 1917 death, so I suspect that Dizzy and Daffy, or other of their family, had the stone placed many years after her death, and were unsure of Alma’s birth and death.

    The 1900 census and the death cert agree on Alma’s dob, which disagree with the stone.

    The informant was W.H. Kimes, whose sister Armedia Viola Kimes m. Rutherford L. Nelson, Alma Dean’s brother and Lucy Meadors’s son.

    Given a choice between contemporaneous, local, family knowledge, and decades-later “best guesses,” I tend to side with the death cert.

    Writ in Stone?

    1. Grady, thanks for bringing up this example.

      This is a perfect example of what happens when sources differ. All three of these sources, the 1900 census, the death certificate, and the stone, have issues. None of those sources (except the death date on the death certificate) have a primary informant (an informant who has firsthand knowledge of the event).

      We don’t know who the informant was on the 1900 census so we can’t judge how right or wrong it is.

      We would expect the death certificate to have a correct death date, but unless it’s the mother providing information on the birth, most likely the informant wasn’t there when the person was born. They don’t have firsthand knowledge.

      And the tombstone, regardless if it was placed at the time or later — who provided the information? Unless you have the receipt or a home source where the person acknowledges purchasing/providing the information, you don’t know. So all three sources are problematic. In this case, to get better information about the birth, you’d want to seek out a birth certificate or a birth certificate alternative. For the death information, the death certificate is probably the best source. In general, I wouldn’t rely on a gravestone since we don’t know who is the informant.

      Thanks for your comment!–Gena

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