Jul 26, 2019

Spelling for Genealogists

July 26, 2019

Recently, while I was volunteering as a genealogy helper, I found what I thought was a good record for the ancestor the client was looking for. Dates and places seemed to be exactly what he thought they should be, but he looked at the computer screen and said, “But, this can’t be my ancestor; we never spelled our name that way.” After some discussion, the client finally, reluctantly, accepted the record as pertaining to his ancestor, but I wonder if he actually ever added that record to his family tree. Sadly, he’s not the only person I’ve ever heard make the same claim. My own father-in-law denied that the “Stetzers” in the next town over were any relation; he was sure that the folks who spelled their name with a “z” instead of an “s” as his branch of the family did, were Jewish, and his line was definitely not. I, of course, was thrilled to be able to add some potential Jewish ancestors to the family tree, but after I researched the so-called Jewish branch of the Stetser Family, it turned out that those “z” spellers were descendants of my father-in-law’s great grandfather; for some reason, the two branches of the family had lost contact, and the descendants of both branches were sure that the other branch was not related.


These two examples are, sadly, not isolated examples. Many beginning genealogists, and some not-so-beginning genealogists reject the idea that their surname was ever spelled any differently than it is now. The fact is that in earlier times many people were illiterate and their name got written however the census taker, the tax collector or the school teacher thought it should be spelled. Often these “corrected” spellings stuck, at least for some parts of the family. Even when people could read and write, their knowledge was fairly rudimentary, and they sometimes added or subtracted letters in their own name in what seems to be an arbitrary way. It probably was arbitrary since how someone spelled his name just was not anything to worry about a few generations ago. I have documents for an ancestor who signed his name differently on his marriage license, an affidavit he made as part of a lawsuit and on his will; consistent spelling didn’t make any difference to him. Everyone probably knew he was who he said he was, no matter how he spelled his name. Another problem in some families were the brothers who didn’t like each other very much and wanted to distinguish their branch of the family from those no-good “Lock’s” by becoming “Locke’s.” As time went by, the families forgot the story of the spelling change and even their relationship.


To add to the confusion of spelling, name changes really weren’t regulated in earlier times. Immigrants often anglicized their names to become more American. Schmidt’s became Smith’s and Johansson’s became Johnson’s. Sometimes the name was translated into the English version such as Mueller becoming Miller. No one really cared about the changes, and no one bothered, in most cases, to officially change the names in a court.


The wise genealogist will keep all of these factors in mind as she researches her family. As is commonly stated, “Spelling doesn’t count for Genealogists.” No matter what your former English teacher said when you were in high school!


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large