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This is something that most people who’ve been digging through genealogical primary sources already know, but I’ve found myself having a conversation about this with a bunch of interested family members and friends lately, so I thought I would write a post about this.

More than likely, your name is spelled the way it is because of a fluke. That’s right. the spelling of your name probably wasn’t standardized until the 20th century. If you think you’re the “Smyths” or the “Brownes” with an “e” then think again. You may very well be as closely related as 3rd cousins with people who spell your last name entirely differently than you do! Bear with me here.

(Non)Standardized Spelling

A few months back I was with my ex at the driver’s license office. He had to show documentation for his license and the clerk noticed that his name was spelled differently on his social security card than on his birth certificate. She warned him that he’d better get that fixed right away because it could mess with his social security, taxes, credit scores and background checks. Needless to say, he went to the social security office and made the change to the official spelling of his first name. Otherwise his whole life could get screwed up, right?

In the nineteenth century, nobody had this problem. First of all, what social security? What social safety nets? There was no real reason to require a standard spelling of a name.

Further, a lot of people didn’t read and write and so when they had to write their name – which wasn’t often – they did the best they could. If they went for years between writing their names, the spellings they chose could easily change. Not to mention that the English language didn’t really have standardized spelling yet. (Figures as recent as Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie wanted to simplify English language spelling because it is just too darn hodgepodge.)

Sometimes people didn’t write their own names at all. Sometimes their names were written by census takers or other public officials who did they best that they could with the spelling of unusual (and not-so-unusual) names. Check it out:

John P. "Gravett," 1870 U.S. Federal Census

John P. “Gravett,” 1870 U.S. Federal Census

James P. Gravet 1880

“Jas” P. “Gravet,” 1880 U. S. Federal Census (Yep, this is him even though they even have his first name as James rather than John!)

John P. Gravitt 1900

John P. “Gravitt,” 1900 U.S. Federal Census

Same guy, same family, three different censuses, three different spellings of their last name. Today, we use the “Gravitt” spelling but we are more than likely related to Gravetts, Gravits, Gravets, Gravots, and more as different families descended from the same ancestors changed the spelling of the name down through the years. It really is just a fluke that we ended up sticking with “Gravitt.”

The same thing happened with first names. Jennet Cowen West and her daughter Edith West lived together in 1888. But Jennet spelled her son’s first name “Paskill” while Edith spelled it “Paschal.” Census records, land records and civil war pensions show Pascal spelled almost every possible way.

Name Spelling in Primary Sources

This is not to say that your relatives didn’t know how to spell their names or didn’t have a preference. One thing to remember when looking at primary source research is that more often than not these records were written by people who were not your relative. Census takers, county clerks, and other assorted bureaucrats often wrote your relative’s name down for them. That’s why it’s always so amazing to find something written by the actual person you are researching. You can get that info straight from the horse’s mouth, for once.

John Berry Duncan's Signature, 1910

John Berry Duncan’s Signature, 1910

This is my 3rd Great-Grandfather John Berry Duncan’s signature in 1910 when he was 88-years-old. You can see he forgot the “n.” That doesn’t mean our name is really “Ducan.” Nah, it’s just that spelling wasn’t as important back in the day.

I hope this helps! (I especially hope this helps my friends who maintain that they can’t be related to anybody with the last name “Stevens”  because their last name has always been spelled “Stephens.”)

Happy detecting!

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