Tips for Building Your Family Tree: Name Variations and How They Affect Your Research

Updated on January 3, 2019
Rhosynwen profile image

I have been researching my family's history for over 15 years, as well as occasionally assisting others in their ancestry research.

What's in a Name?

First names are something that we use to identify ourselves as individuals; surnames identify from whence we came and how we fit into the rest of humanity. The spellings of both first and last names have varied over the years by region and dialect in their respective countries of origin. Other factors that have caused spelling variations to occur in names include immigration (immigrants often adjusted their names to blend in better with their new neighbors), and the phonetically-based recording of names by public and religious record-keepers. All of these things can make research rather challenging for the aspiring family genealogist. Not knowing that the spelling of your surname morphed through the years from one form to another can cause you to miss an important document because you think that document is referring to someone else. There are ways, however, to ensure that you do not overlook information because of spelling variations.

An illustrated record for the family of an Isaac "Tounsend", which shows a phonetic variation of the name we normally see spelled as "Townsend".
An illustrated record for the family of an Isaac "Tounsend", which shows a phonetic variation of the name we normally see spelled as "Townsend". | Source

First Names First

Spelling variations in first names can cause a moderate amount of trouble for a researcher, but if a person's surname was always spelled correctly in public records, it is not too difficult to find information in spite of this. A bigger headache can be caused by nicknames, especially nicknames that were commonly used but seem to make no sense in relationship to the person's given name. An example: Carrie would seem to be a rational sort of shortening of the name Caroline, as would Addie for Adeline. Less apparent but still somewhat reasonable would be Cynthie or Cindy for Lucinda, and Sally for Sarah. Totally unexpected, however, and yet often used in the past, is the nickname Polly for women named Mary. (I noticed this curious phenomenon when I began to research my own ancestry. I am sure there is an explanation for it, but I still find it a rather odd jump to go from Mary to Polly. Equally strange is the nickname Patsy for women named Martha.) It is this final example, and others similar to it, that can cause the most confusion.

Pet nicknames that are derived from some source other than the bearer's given name can also throw you off track. You could end up searching for a second wife for a male ancestor based on the fact that the wife's name suddenly seems so different in the census, only to find out that whoever gave the information to the census-taker was using the woman's nickname, so there really was only one wife. You could also keep passing over ancestors as children in records due to the fact that they were referred to under a nickname while in their parent's household rather than their given name (or vice versa); this difference would therefore cause you to miss the person's parents as well. If you stumble upon a person in a circumstance such as this in which everything but the first name seems to match your research, try looking at records pertaining to other members of that family. Someone may make mention of a sibling under the name you already have, which could point to the use of a nickname for the person by the family in addition to the person's real name. Matching your ancestor to the right parents often requires viewing the situation from different angles.

Any one of your ancestors could have had his or her last name spelled several different ways in public records down through the years.

Cumming, Comings, Cummins, Cumin....

One thing for which you must always be on the lookout when researching your family history is the many ways a given surname could possibly be written. As the title of this section indicates, there can be many different spellings that, while they look very different, to the ear sound very much the same. Any one of your ancestors could have had his or her last name spelled several different ways in public records down through the years. This was normally not because they did not know how to spell their own surname, but because the person recording their name just wrote down what he thought was the correct spelling. Occasionally a last name could be twisted almost beyond recognition by a record keeper! Hence, you could have a Walter Higgins, with his name spelled correctly on one document, only to have it spelled Higgans on another, and then Higins on the next. Then, say Walter had an accent that caused him to drop his "h", so that people often thought he was saying "Iggins" rather than Higgins, and thus "Walter Iggins" he became in many records. While in reality there was only one man named Walter Higgins, to the casual observer it would seem as if there were multiple Walters with very similar last names in a particular locale.

All of these possibilities for spelling errors give the present-day researcher some serious work to do in order to find all of the records pertaining to his or her ancestors. Of course, sometimes multiple people with very similar names would be living in an area at the same time. Always be careful to verify via other facts relating to your ancestor that a document you have found is actually referring to them and not someone else.

An example of surname variation in historical records.  Note the highlighted names are variants of the same surname, which in this case is misspelled both times -- it should be "Payne" (per the author's research -- some info covered for privacy.)
An example of surname variation in historical records. Note the highlighted names are variants of the same surname, which in this case is misspelled both times -- it should be "Payne" (per the author's research -- some info covered for privacy.) | Source

How Does That Sound?

A search engine that has the option for you to run a search with some form of Soundex being applied to the results is a lovely tool for ancestry research. If this option is available on a website that you are utilizing for research, then use it. This tool gives you results that include spelling variations of the surname you are looking up because it searches (basically) by using phonetics. Be aware, however, that Soundex is not perfect and will at times miss a very obvious variant spelling. That is why I recommend sitting down yourself and trying to think of every possible, rational way you could spell the surname you are researching based on how it sounds when you say it. I would also throw in a few slightly odd, but feasible, misspellings in as well. Write all of these possibilities down, and use them as you search.

Also, take into consideration the ethnicity of the name when thinking of variations. I discovered via another researcher that a particular family name of mine was often rendered with a "p" at the beginning instead of the "b" that ought to have been there because of the way the German pronunciation of the name sounded to English ears. This revelation opened up an entire new avenue of research for me that I would not have found without this tip. So, think about the ethnicity of your ancestors and how this may have affected their pronunciation as they spoke.

Another issue that arises here in connection with ethnicity is the Anglicization of many surnames when immigrants came to America. If you keep running into a wall with a certain surname, it would not hurt for you to perform a study on the surname itself to see if it was used as an Anglicized form of another name. The change could have been made right away by your ancestor or an immigration official when your ancestor first arrived in their new country, or over time due to mispronunciation by neighbors or a descendant wanting to disconnect their surname from the country of its origin for one reason or another. In any one of these cases, the name can make such a sudden, marked jump in spelling that you may not see the connection between the two names at first. This is why it is always good to know as much as you can about the history of a surname when researching your ancestry.

In Conclusion

While name variations can add a layer of difficulty to family research, they do not have to derail your research entirely. By employing strategies such as the ones given above, you can overcome the difficulties and find new information concerning your ancestry.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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