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Feb 27

Spelling Variations in Public Records

Posted on February 27, 2019 at 1:42 PM by Chester County Archives

Barnard ExampleFive members of the same extended Bernard/Barnard family signed this administration bond differently.

When asked to give our names, it is not uncommon to hear “And how do you spell that?” The concept of proper spelling is second nature to us. When we are born we are given a birth certificate and social security number that will follow us throughout our lives. Our name, in essence, is our ID.

For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries your unique identity was tied to your residence and occupation. The concern was not so much how you spelled “Samuel Johnson” as much as knowing that Samuel Johnson lived in Sadsbury Township and was a blacksmith. Knowing this relevant information for your ancestor is much more important in this time period than knowing the exact spelling of their surname.

Before the twentieth century, if you were asked to provide your name, a clerk rarely asked “And how do you spell that?” They simply recorded it as they heard it. After providing your name, you would never stop to wonder why they never asked you how to spell it, let alone check to see if it was spelled correctly. Our concept of “proper spelling” was foreign to most of our ancestors. There are plenty of examples in the deeds, tax records and court records at the Chester County Archives where the clerk wrote the same name multiple times in the same document and varied the spelling just as often.

Deed Example

The surname Gillespie is spelled several ways in this one deed which was drawn up by one individual likely in the presence of the said Gillespie.

The tension between “proper spelling” and phonetics makes tracing your family history in public records difficult. Archivists often hear, “Our family spells the name this way, so that can’t be him.” Discounting any variation in your family name will likely lead you to an insurmountable brick wall. Not only because most names were spelled phonetically in earlier time periods, but because clerical errors abound in public records.

Chrisman Example

John Chrisman and Jacob Christman are brothers, but each spelled their surname differently on the same administration bond.

One of the many ways clerks could unwittingly alter the spelling of a surname was in their attempt to interpret another’s handwriting. Today, if we encounter poor handwriting, we are generally reduced to using our own judgment. What this means is that we can inadvertently introduce something that isn’t there but we think should be there, adding a letter or two to something we can’t make sense of. Take the abbreviation for the given name Joseph, which is Jos. If the “o” was poorly formed or illegible the clerk could write the name down as James instead. Or take for example the lowercase forms of the letters U, N, M, W, R, I, E. When a name is written with two or three of those letters in a row, it can be difficult to distinguish between them. Frame could become Fraine, both unique Chester County surnames.

It helps to have an understanding of the process in which the records you are using were created. At the most basic level, you want to know how close the record was to your ancestor. At what point in the creation of the record was your ancestor providing this information? Tax records, and the process in which they were created, help illustrate this point.  When the local tax assessor documented the taxable property in the township, they recorded the information, including the spelling of names, directly from the individual. Unfortunately, this record most likely did not survive. The return was eventually transcribed by the county assessor who had to interpret the township assessor’s handwriting. The county assessment and the tax rates were records written by the county assessors using the returns submitted by the township assessors, and thus two or three steps removed from your ancestor.

Tax Example

The first list of names was submitted on the local assessor’s tax returns in 1783. By the time the county assessors drew up a list of rates, a number of variations to the spellings of several surnames crept into the final list.

Phonetics, however, is the biggest hurdle to overcome when using public records. In almost all circumstances vowels are fully interchangeable. Take the surname Ayres. The “A” can easily be replaced with an “E” and the “Y” with an “I,” “A,” or an “E;” Airs, Ayers, Eayres, Eyres, Aeirs. This works the same with hard consonants like “C,” “K,” and “G” such as Crow and Grow, Gunkle and Kunkle, Cain and Kain, or “D” and “T” for Detterline and Tetterline, or “B” and “P” for Bickle and Pickle.  Also be aware of letters that sound alike, like “S” and “Z” and “F” and “PH.” For an example of common Chester County surname variations, see this document.

The following record is a good example of the potential spelling pitfalls you may come across in public records.

Nichols Example
When Thomas Nichols died in 1826, he left a widow named Mary and seven children. The clerk or lawyer who drew up the documents filed in the Orphans’ Court after Nichols’s death mainly spelled his surname Nichols, with some slight variations such as Nickols and Nicholes. Researchers may surmise that because Thomas was deceased, and not there to make corrections, errors could easily have crept in. His family’s signatures, however, tell a different story.

In their petition for guardians, the Nichols family signed their name in four distinctly different ways. Thomas’s widow signed her name Mary “Nickols,” and his daughters signed their names Phebe “Nickls,” Ann “Nicklas” and Elizabeth “Nickels.” In one file there are six versions of the same name and on one document the family signed using four different versions. This is problematic if you consider that, logically, several of the girls (if not all of them) were taught by the same teacher. It is clear that spelling standardization was not taught and no one signing the document thought to look at the other signatures. This is only one example of many that exists in our holdings.

So don’t be surprised to see your surname change several times over the course of a century. Each generation may have had its own take on how to sign their name. Something as simple as a vowel change from “i” to “y” can cause researchers to overlook pertinent records. Take the time to anticipate all the potential phonetical spellings of your surname. While it may seem silly, try saying it out loud with accents. If your ancestor was Scottish, how would a clerk hear his name pronounced? By doing so you may break through that brick wall and open up new avenues of research.


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