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   How to Search a Misspelled Family Name in Your Genealogy

You may have searched for your ancestors using the common spelling of their family name. In other words when you were trying to find your genealogy you used the spelling of the family name with which you have always been familiar or that has been handed down as the correct spelling of your family's last name. There are many occasions when searching for your family name that this may not work.

For instance, those who actually recorded your family’s names, like the census taker, the county clerk, or perhaps the tax collector, could have spelled your family name in numerous other ways. It may be that your family's name was spelled phonetically, or characters may have been left out or added. Character reversals are especially common when family names are extracted for a genealogy search Index which you may have searched online.

There is a feature at which can help you search for family names with different spellings. Try using either the Surname Browse Search Box or the list version of the Surname Browse feature to search for your family's last names. This feature links you to the various surnames found in the Ancestry Archive Index which is a genealogy index of millions of names. This genealogy search makes it possible for you to easily and quickly find if your ancestor's family name is masquerading as some other surname because of a misspelling.

In recent times most spellings of common words and family names have been standardized. Spelling standardization, however, only began about the mid-twentieth century. Prior to that a large percentage of the population could not read or write and therefore did not know if their family's name was written correctly or not. To complicate matters even more, the spelling of a family’s name changed according to the country from which the surname originated.

I ask you: "How often have you seen your family’s name misspelled?" My family name gets misspelled quite often and its not because it is a hard name to spell either. My last name is Carman. Most people will spell it Carmen or Karmen. Anymore, I almost expect my last name to be misspelled. Because of this, when I am searching for my family’s name in a genealogy index, I often will search for these name variants.

Fortunately my family name has very few spelling variations. Your family name however may have hundreds. That's why the family names listed in the Surname Browse are so helpful. The Surname Browse lists in alphabetical order only those last names that are represented in the Ancestry Archive Index. This helps you quickly find if there are other spellings of the family name for which you are searching included in the genealogies at .

Perhaps you do not know what the common spelling variations or misspellings of your family's name are. Here are some simple misspelling strategies to help you discover some of those name variants. Remember, just because the misspelled name appears in a genealogy index or vital record does not mean that your ancestor gave instructions to the recorder to spell it that way. It usually means the recorder couldn't spell the name, or he misunderstood the family name when it was spoken, or the extractor misread the name that was written.

  • 1. Select the "Name Variants" feature found on the Ancestry Archive search page and enter your family’s name to find alternative spellings of your family’s last name. ( The spelling suggestions given, using this feature, are created using the Soundex approach and generally contain a wide range of spellings; therefore, be sure to select those that are most applicable.)
  • 2. Try adding an "s" to the end of the surname when searching from the Ancestry Archive search page.
  • 3. Try substituting an "a" for an "o" and visa versa. For instance Ball to Boll.
  • 4. Try substituting an "e" for an "i" and visa versa.
  • 5. Try doubling the constants or removing the doubled constants "n", "m", or "l" in your family’s name, for instance Donnely to Donnelly
  • 6. Try spelling your family’s name phonetically. (That is spell it the way it sounds, for instance Hiday and Highday)
  • 7. Add or remove an "e" before a "y" in your family’s name, for instance Wily to Wiley.
  • 8. Substitute a "y" for an "i" your family’s name, for instance Linch to Lynch
  • 9. If the first character of your family’s name is an "I", substitute a "J" for it. (Often extractors mistake the cursive capital I for the cursive capital J in a name.)
  • 10. If the first character of your family’s name is an "S", substitute a "L" for it and visa versa. (Often extractors mistake the cursive capital S in a name for the cursive capital L. For instance Sander or Lauder)
  • 11. If the first character of your family’s name is an "M" substitute a "W" for it and visa versa. (Often extractors mistake the cursive capital M for the cursive capital W. For instance the last names Wills are indexed as Mills)
Below are some of the categories of spelling errors and last name spelling variations that William Thorndale summarized in "The Source":
  • 1. Calligraphic name look-alikes: Daniel/David, Nathan/Mathew
  • 2. Phonetic equivalents of family names especially if an ancestor's accent is taken into consideration: Lydecker instead of Litaker, Myatt versus Maillotte, de la Hunte or Dillahunty, Hansel and Ansel, St. Cyr or Sincere, Ratton and Wroughton , Vanlandingham versus Flannagen.
  • 3. Translation equivalents of family names: Calbfeisch is Veal, Rubsamen is Turnip seed, Silber becomes Silver.
  • 4. Truncates of names: Fitzgerald becomes Gerald or Jurrell, O'Sullivan becomes Sully, Haythornthwaite becomes Haythorn, Strohmaier becomes Maier, de Villeponteaux becomes Pontoux.
  • 5. Spelling irregularities of family names : Cuper pronounced Cooper, Cocks pronounced Cox.
Beware of assuming that if a family’s name is not spelled in a certain way that the individual cannot belong to your family. Many researchers miss finding their ancestor in records due to not checking for misspelling of the family’s name. Especially watch for letter transpositions. If you use the Surname Browse lists at you can avoid having to guess what spelling variations of a family’s name will bring results in your genealogy search.

Copyright © 2008-2015 Cindy Carman. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.


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