Spelling Doesn't Count

by Amy Johnson Crow

Posted on March 8, 2013

Back in school, there was usually one student who had the same question every time the teacher assigned a paper: "Does spelling count?" (This same student was always relieved when the answer was "no.") This student might make a good genealogist, because when it comes to names in older records, spelling doesn't count.

Have you disregarded a record because the name has a different spelling? You should look at that record again. You might have had the right person all along.

Reasons for "Creative" Spelling

Consider this: How can you spell something if you don't know how to read? And there's the problem. With high illiteracy rates, many people didn't know how to spell their own names. They couldn't spell it for officials who might be asking, nor could they correct the spelling if they saw it written down.

Spelling would also get creative when a person had to say their name for the person writing the record, such as with the census. The writer could easily write down a different spelling than we expect if the person had an accent, was soft-spoken, or had difficulties with speech. The person might have said "Schmidt," but it was heard as "Schmitt" or "Smith." The problem is worse if the person writing it down didn't have the best spelling skills.

Handwriting is also an issue. Is that an i or an e? Is that name Reisner or Riesner?

Don't Grade Too Harshly

When you're sorting through records and you come across one that looks like it refers to your ancestor, but it's "spelled wrong," don't immediately discount it. Look at the rest of the information in the record. Does it match what you know about that person? For example, if you're looking at a census record, look to see if the age and birthplace are correct. Are the household members who you expected?

We talk a lot about brick walls in genealogy and how to break through them. Don't make that brick wall stronger and taller by excluding records simply because "the name isn't spelled right." Unlike term papers, when it comes to old records, spelling doesn't count.

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