Name Variations in United States Indexes and Records

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Before you decide your ancestor is not in an index or record, try the suggestions in this guide. Identifying your ancestors' name in indexes and records may be difficult because of:

  • Spelling errors and spelling changes over time.
  • Errors in reading handwriting.
  • Americanization of foreign surnames.
  • Errors made by an indexer.
  • Errors made by the transcriber of a record

Steps[edit | edit source]

These 4 steps will help you identify your ancestor's name in indexes and records.

Step 1. If you can't find the record, check if the name is spelled a different way[edit | edit source]

Two kinds of spelling errors are found in records and indexes:

  • The transcriber or indexer misreads the original or mistypes the index entry.
  • The creator of the records mispells the name in the original record.

The following table1 lists problems in indexes and records and suggests possible solutions:

Different spellings

Think of the ways your ancestor's name may have changed, and then look for his or her name under those spellings. For further suggestions, see:

  • American Surnames
  • Name and Word Spellings
  • Why U Can't Find Your Ancestor
Initials or abbreviations

Look for the surname with the first or middle names as initials or abbreviations. For example, look for the name "GREEN, James William" under:

  • GREEN, J.
  • GREEN, J.W.
  • GREEN, Jas. W.
  • GREEN, Jas. Wm.
  • GREEN, James W.
  • GREEN, J. William
  • GREEN, J. Wm.
  • GREEN, James
  • GREEN, William
Middle name Look for the middle instead of the first name. For example, instead of the name "WALKER, George Herbert," try "WALKER, Herbert."
Vowels Look for the name spelled with different vowels. For example, look for GILLESPIE under GALLESPIE, GELLESPIE, GOLLESPIE, GULLESPIE, or GYLLESPIE.
Double letters Search the index for the name with double letters added or deleted. For example, for the name FULLER, try FULER. For the name BAKER, try BAKKER.
Transposed letters Look for the name spelled with each of the first four letters transposed. For example, look for name WIGHTMAN under IWGHTMAN, WGIHTMAN, WIHGTMAN, and WIGTHMAN.
Misread letters

Old handwriting is often a challenge to read. Use theCommonly Misread Letters Table to find letters which were possibly substituted in the spelling of the name. Using this table, the name CARTER might be under GARTER, EARTER, OARTER, CEARTER, CEIRTER, CAETER, CASTER and so forth. For further suggestions, see:

  • Kirkham, E. Kay. The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years
  • Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting
Phonetic substitutes Use thePhonetic Substitutes Table to find ways the name may have been misspelled using letters which sound similar. Using the table, RADCLIFFE might be searched for under RHADCLIFFE, RATCLIFFE, RADDCLIFFE, RADKLIFFE, RADGLIFFE, RADCLIVE, or RADCLIPHE.
First letter

Look at all the surnames that begin with the same letter as the name you seek. For example, if you cannot find the surname KELLY, scan all the surnames that begin with "K" for garbled or misplaced spellings of Kelly. For further suggestions, see Examples of Letters of the 17th Century Found in Parish Registers.

Step 2. Apply the suggestions[edit | edit source]

Using your ancestor's name, experiment with the suggestions made in the table above. Try possible:

  • Alternative or phonetic spellings. Remember to check 'Spelling Substitution Tables.
  • Handwriting alternatives.
  • Typos and inadvertent spelling errors.
  • Indexing errors.

Step 3. Search the original record[edit | edit source]

If the record is a copy, the transcriber may have misread the original record. To find the original record:

  • Check the FamilySearch Catalog to see if the original record has been filmed. If so, obtain the film and photocopy the page in question.
  • Write to the place where the original record may be housed, such as a court house, state archives, or church. Ask for a photocopy of the page you need.

Compare the copy of the record with the original record, watching for the suggestions made in the table above.

Step 4. Look for relatives in an index[edit | edit source]

Look for the names of parents, children, brothers or sisters, and uncles or aunts in the index. If you find relatives in the index, look at the original record to see if the person you want is mentioned in the record but was missed by the indexer.

Related Content[edit | edit source]

Guessing a Name Variation

Spelling Substitution Tables for the United States and Canada

Traditional Nicknames in Old Documents - A Wiki List


1. Based on a table originally published in G. David Dilts, "Censuses and Tax Lists," in Kory L. Meyerink, ed., Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998), 339. Here by express permission of the author.