You Found Them Where? Getting Around Misspelled Names.

by George Joynson | Jul 2, 2009

George Joynson

Continuing your genealogy research despite misspellings can be quite a challenge. Years ago our ancestors' names were commonly misspelled. Maybe spelling just wasn't important back then. Maybe it was haste, typographical, sloppy writing, poor pronunciation, inability to understand foreign accents or disdain towards immigrants. Whatever the reason, be prepared to look for your ancestors using different spellings. It's easy when you find them where they should be. When they are not there, your research parameters widen and sooner or later, all good genealogists come to this point. Granted, widening parameters is not a good sign. It can be discouraging to some, but to others it's a challenge. You have to start looking elsewhere. Where is the next best place to look for them? This is where you need to be creative.

Would you think to look under "G" for your Zastera relatives? A hundred years ago, a county clerk misspelled Zastera as "Gastera," and filed a bunch of legal records under the wrong spelling. It was very exciting to find these misspelled records! When you picture someone speaking with a heavy Austrian accent, "Gastera" could easily sound like Zastera. You have to think outside the box, like a detective or a reporter, and come up with any possible spelling of the name you are researching. Then you have to research the misspellings.

Internet Searching

Learn how to get the most out of the search engine you choose to use. Read and use their Advanced Search methods and the "tips" they offer on using variables. Using an asterisk, quotes, or a minus sign can yield surprisingly helpful results. If the search engine lists a page that returns "Page Not Found," go back and try clicking the "cache" button. There may be enough information still there to help you continue your search.

Search using the misspelling. Depending on how much time you have and how badly you want to find them, you can search for your ancestors under many different spellings. Sometimes the first letter can be dropped, as in "Astera." Sometimes the letters can get transposed, as in "Laksy" for Lasky. Search all you can think of and them some! If you have trouble coming up with alternative spellings, try The Name Thesaurus. You can type in the name you are looking for and get a list of different spellings.


Years ago, people with less education spelled how it sounded. Try using the phonetic pronunciation or similar version of the name you are searching. Just sound it out. Conover could be filed under Konover; Brown could be misspelled Bowne. Some names are more difficult than others. The surname Connolly could be spelled more than 10 different ways. Think of it as doing a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a blue sky. You may have to try every piece, one by one, until by the process of elimination you find the piece that fits.

When you search for records of a surname like the Heyer family, you have to also look for them under Hyer, Hier and Hire, and with an "s" as in Heyers, Hyers, Hiers and Hires. You can also look under Ayer, Ayers, etc. That's more than ten different spelling variations to go through to find your Heyer relatives' records. If you add an apostrophe to the name, as in "Heyer's," you get even more variations. To be thorough, make a list and check them off as time allows each search. Keep a file of "others" - possible misspelled relatives who might be related, but need further research to prove or disprove the connections. When you're not sure if the misspelled name is the one you are looking for, use corroborating evidence from a different source to confirm the connection.

No one said this was going to be easy! Searching out misspellings is one of the largest stumbling blocks. A dedicated genealogist will spend a large amount of hours looking at wrong spellings. It can test a genealogist's staying power. The bottom line is that when you work that hard for something, it is that much more rewarding when you finally find them. You won't remember the easy searches. You'll remember how hard it was and how long it took and how rewarding it was, when you finally found the names of your great grandfather's parents hidden under a misspelling.

Foreign Names

Some of our ancestors "Americanized" their names when they crossed the pond. Our Reigelhaupt ancestors shortened their name to Riegel. In England around the 1800, the letter "y" began to replace the letter "i" in some instances. My ancestor was born in 1777 as a Joinson but died in 1838 as a Joynson. For a period of about 50 years before and 50 years after his time, I searched for his parents, siblings and children under both spellings (not to mention Joyson, Jointson, Jayson, etc.).

If you try these methods and still come up blank, don't give up. After a few months or a few years, go back over your work. You will be surprised at what you missed, and keep a lookout for new sources. Each day, more sources become available. It's the thrill of discovery that keeps devoted genealogists going. Sooner or later, hopefully each one of my hidden ancestors will get discovered and if you keep at it, yours will too.

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