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  • Writer's pictureFiona Appleton-Thorn

Should You Use The Exact Spellings When Using Ancestral Records Online?

When researching a family tree some people decide on searching for records that are matched only to specific spellings or locations and avoid variations at all costs. But could they be missing out?

The answer to that question is “Maybe” because there are some additional factors to consider.

If the records they are researching are in more recent years like post WW2 it’s possible that including variant spellings may just increase the number of results pointlessly. It’s better to begin with the exact spelling and see how many results are found. Checking into each entry can help with the decision to discard from further interest or not. If there were no promising results, then a switch to including variants can be the next step. But why use a different spelling of the last name? The further back in time you go, the higher the proportion of the population did not read or write. What has this got to do with Genealogy? Quite a lot. The illiterate used verbal pronunciation of their name (Using whichever local dialect they had) and it was written down by another party, like a clerk, a pastor, or an enumerator. This meant that the spelling of the name, first and last, were left up to the discretion of the author.

Consequently, in a Parish record for the same village, an individual could have their name spelled or abbreviated in different ways at each event- Baptism, Marriage and Burial depending on which minister or registrar wrote up the paperwork. It is possible that some individuals spelled their names differently on purpose, no doubt some were shady characters hiding from the law or their wives, but not all of the population were criminals or bigamists.

Spellings were varied for other reasons too. Some branches of families decided to differentiate themselves by changing the spelling. In this way it’s possible that someone with the last name of “Neill” could also be related to any or more of the following: Neilson, Neilsen, Neil, Neall, Nealson, Nelson, Nelse. But why would an ancestor suddenly alter their name?

When the number of family members in one district become numerous there is an increased likelihood that distant cousins in the next town over will have the same name. There can be confusion over which one is which and one reputation can be forever entwined with the other. Adding an extra letter or changing one, gave a differentiating factor to the written version. It was unlikely to be a thought for the lower-class illiterate though, as the name still sounded the same. This indicates this practice was more the preference of businessmen and those seeking to climb the social ladder. Example of Smith becoming Smyth and then Smythe.

Differentiating between individuals with the same name is how the use of surnames began. They began to develop in the Middle Ages as the populations grew and people travelled more. While knowing the origin of your surname does not give you a short cut to finding ancestors it can give insight to other things like their place in the community, the location ancestors originated from, or their features. You can find out more in another article:

When entering locations into search filters it’s good to remember that travel and migration were less common the further back in time you go. If you have a known location for the family, start there before taking in adjacent areas. Keep notes on which locations you have searched, this way you can systematically search different locations by extending a radius gradually. If you still have few results you can then add search criteria to include other counties or overseas records.

Passenger lists could provide positive results, but unless you have exhausted the home region or have evidence that this ancestor lived abroad then it could merely waste your time viewing hundreds of entries.

If you are looking for a very unique name the number of results will be few, and an exact match will be extremely promising.

Don’t be afraid to play with filters when you are using a genealogy database, but do try to keep a note of the search parameters you set and the result so that you don’t keep repeating the same search without noticing. They say it’s the first sign of madness, doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result!

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