Guessing a Name Variation
20 ways to find an elusive name including using competing indexes, initials, abbreviations, middle names, nicknames, IGI standardized names, translations, letter substitutes, finding relatives, and searching the record without an index.
Just because an ancestor always spelled his name the same way, that does NOT GUARANTEE it was always spelled that way by a clerk or by an indexer. If your first search fails to find an ancestor, consider the possibility the name is spelled differently than you expect. In fact, experienced genealogists worry their skills are slipping if they are not finding several documents with unexpected spellings of the name.
- Competing indexes. Look for the elusive name in a competing index by another company, if one is available. For example, many United States federal censuses have more than one index. A list of online U.S. census indexes is on the Internet at Census Genealogy Links at http://www.warnes.net/Teslacorp/GenealogyLinks/index_html?Tab=4-US%20Census
- Neighboring entries in book indexes. Find the place in a book index where the name should be, and search at least one index page preceding and one index page following that place for similar names. Look for slightly different spellings of the name.
- Initials or abbreviations. Look for the surname with the given or middle names as initials or abbreviations. For example, look for the name Green, James William, under such variations as Green, J; Green, J. W.; Green, Jas W.: Green Jas. Wm.; or Green, James W.
- Middle name. Look for the middle instead of the given name. For example, instead of the name Walker, George Herbert, try Walker, Herbert.
- Nicknames. Look for the ancestor by any known or guessed nickname. For example, look for William under Bill. For ideas see Traditional Nicknames in Old Documents – A Wiki List.
- Soundex vs. exact spelling search. Some computer indexes such as Ancestry.com allow a Soundex spelling search. Switch to this option to find names with similar but slightly different spellings.
- Surname only search in computer indexes. Sometimes it pays to search for the family surname in a specified state or county without a given name. Browse through the results list looking for your ancestor with an unexpected given name variation. Pay special attention to the shape of the name if letters are above or below the line but indexed incorrectly. For example, a capital B and R or lower case g and y could be misread. See the misread names chart below.
- Given name only search in computer indexes. In a specified state or county, search for your ancestor’s given name without a surname. Browse through the results list looking for your ancestor with an unexpected surname variation.
- Unusual occupation search. A few computer indexes (usually CDs) allow a search for occupations. If a hard-to-find ancestor has an unusual occupation, search the index for the occupation without a surname or given name. Browse through the results list for your ancestor.
- International Genealogical Index (IGI) standardized surnames. Look for your ancestor in the International Genealogical Index. Notice the various "standardized" surname spellings grouped with your ancestor's surname to learn possible variations to use in other indexes and records.
- Translated immigrant surname. Some immigrants translate their surname into English. For example, Schneider means Tailor. If your ancestor was born in a foreign-language speaking nation, look for him under both the English and foreign-language version of the surname. Use dictionaries (such as German-English) to find possible name translations. For lists of such dictionaries use the Family History Library Catalog Subject Search for "language."
- Translated immigrant given name. Look for both foreign language and English versions of given names, for example, Andrew = Andreas. Get help from the given name dictionary in 25 languages: Wanda Janowowa, et. al.,Słownik Imion (Wrocław [Poland]: Narodowy Imienia Ossolińskich Wydawnictwo, 1975.) [FHL INTL Reference 940 D4si; Fiche 6000839]
- Vowels. Look for the name spelled with different vowels. For example, look for GILLESPIE under GALLESPIE.
- 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 elusive name under spellings with each of the first four letters transposed. For example, look for WIGHT under IWGHT, WGIHT, WIHGT, AND WIGTH.
- Misread letters. Use the Commonly 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.
- Phonetic substitutes. Use the Phonetic 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 in book indexes. 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.
- Relatives and neighbors. Look for the names of parents, children, brothers or sisters, uncles, aunts, or neighbors in the index. If you find relatives or neighbors in the index, look at the original record to see if the ancestor you want is nearby in the record.
- Original record. If an ancestor is not found in an index where you expect, search the original record anyway. If searching a census or land record, look at every name in the county, and if necessary, neighboring counties to find the ancestor.
Related Internet Site
Why U Can't Find Your Ancestor at www.rootsweb.com/~rwguide/lesson8.htm
1. Modified from G. David Dilts, “Guidelines for Finding Misplaced Names in Census Indexes” in the “Censuses and Tax Lists” chapter of Kory L. Meyerink, Printed Sources: A Guide to Publish Genealogical Records (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998), 339.