By Barry J. Ewell
If you’re certain a family lived in a specific area, but you just can’t find them, consider looking for alternate surname spellings. If your surname was “Brown,” search spellings like
Consider looking for names that have been Americanized to help with pronunciation or to set themselves apart from other families or cultures. For example
- Giovanni becomes John
- Zbigniew becomes Charles
- Dimitrios becomes James, Jim
- Sandeep becomes Sandi, Sandy
- Grun becomes Green
- Concetta becomes Connie
- Schmidt becomes Smith
If you know the origin of the name (i.e., German, Swedish), ask someone who knows the language to pronounce the name. They will be able to apply pronunciation rules for the original language and give you a chance to phonetically spell the name as census taker might have done, translate the meaning if what Americanized, and/or provide insights as to how the name might be spelled in the original language.
Never assume that the surname you are researching has stayed the same through the generations or even through a life time. Census enumerators, priests, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, tax collectors, and any other persons with need to write down your family name probably had some input on how it was written. I have learned that for every record I find, I should not be surprised if my name is spelled differently. For example one research found the following:
- Reardin was found in a land record
- Rairdon was found in a census
- Rarden was found in a church record
- Rardin was found in a court record
- Reardin was found in a military record
I actually have one record where my surname is spelled four different ways in one paragraph.
Search first within a 25 mile radius of the area where you believe your ancestor lived. Expand your search by 25 miles until you feel you have exhausted possibilities. There has been several times where I have expanded my search to include the entire state and look for all areas where the surname was found. If your family lived near a state boundary, make sure you search the neighboring state. Expand your research and locate where else the surname is located within the state.
See the article, ” When you can’t find your ancestor in the census.”