Genealogy: Search strategies for finding names in the census and other resources

Search strategiesBy Barry J. Ewell
When I began my genealogy research, I would only search indexes of books, online databases, and related records for my surname Ewell exactly was it was spelled with no other variation.  Since then I have found my name spelled in over a hundred different ways.  Resources that I had discounted as not having any record of my family, I have gone back and found information that was there but just under a different spelling.  Searching your ancestors name in indexes and records is a skill.  Searching your ancestors name in the census, indexes and records is a skill.  I would like to share with a few of the lessons I have learned to create a search strategy for finding your ancestors names.

Create surname variation list
If you can’t find the record, check if the name is spelled a different way.  It is wise practice when it comes to old documents; spelling doesn’t count, especially with names. Instead of narrowing the field of research with exact spelling, it is important to enlarge it with every possible spelling.  For example, the following are just a few variations of the surname Ewell:


I knew one researcher whose last name was “Brown.”  When she was presented with information that could extend her family line by five generations, she declined to accept the research because the name was spelled with the German spelling of “Brun.”

Focus on Initials or abbreviations
Look for the surname with the first or middle names as initials or abbreviations. If I was searching for ancestor with the name of “James William Ewell,” I would search indexes and records for variations as follows:

  • Ewell, J.
  • Ewell, J. W.
  • Ewell, Jas. W.
  • Ewell, Jas. Wm.
  • Ewell, James W.
  • Ewell, J. William
  • Ewell, J. Wm.
  • Ewell, James
  • Ewell, William

Focus on the middle name
If I was searching for the ancestor named “James William Ewell,” rather than searching the searching the first as “James,” I would focus on the middle name Willam as if it was the first name.

Focus on the phonetic sound of the first vowels
There are some names that when they are pronounce out loud, the first vowel can be mistaken for other vowel sounds and thus easily misspelled.  For example if I was say the name “Gillepsie” out loud, I could easily find the name spelled as follows:

  • Gallespie with the I being replace with A
  • Gellespie with the I begin replace with E
  • Gollespie with the I being replace with O
  • Gullespie with the I being replace with U

Check double letters
Search the index for the name with double letters added or deleted.  There are surnames such as those of Scandinavian decent where double letters were common and through time the two letters were reduced to one.  That said you need to look for the name both ways. For example:

  • Search both Fuller and Fuler
  • Search both Bakker and Baker
  • Search for Paasken and Pasken

Letters can become transposed
Transposed refers to the when two letters change places. For example, in my surname of Ewell, transposed would be where EW is written WE.  When you are researching transcripts of original records, transposed letters are common.  Make a practice to look for transposed letters of the of the first four letters of surnames you are researching. For example, if I were researching the surname”Kimball,” I would

  • Search Ikmball focusing on the IK transposed letters
  • Search Kmiball focusing on the MI transposed letters
  • Search Kibmall focusing on the BM transposed letters
  • Search Kimabll focusing on the AB transposed letters

Search all surnames that begin with the same letter
Make it a practice to search all the names in the index that begin with the same letter.  For example, if you can’t find the surname Ewell, I would scan all the names that begin with “E” for garbled or misplaced spellings of  Ewell.

Letters can be misread
Reading and deciphering handwriting is a skill. There are some letters that are more commonly misread than others when transcribed. You can use this knowledge to perhaps substitute letters in the spelling of name to look for spelling variations.  For example, commonly misread letters are as follows:

  • “A” commonly misread as H, C, or O
  • “a” commonly misread as o, u, ei, ie, n, w
  • “B” commonly misread as R, P, S
  • “b” commonly misread as li, le, t, h, i
  • “C” commonly misread as G, E, O, Ce
  • “c” commonly misread as e, l, o, u
  • “D” commonly misread as G, S, I, J, T, Lr
  • “d” commonly misread as u, a, n, ie, ei, ee, ct, o

If I were looking for the searching the last name of Carter, I would search for

  • Garter changing the C to G
  • Eater changing the C to E
  • Oarter changing the C to O
  • Cieater chaning the Ca to Cie
  • Corter chaning the Ca to Co

Phonetic substitutes
We have already touched on this topic of phonetic sounds of the first vowel.  When names are said out loud, there are some letters and letter combinations that are commonly written differently but sound similar. This is referred to as phonetic substitutes. For example

  • “a” when said out loud can be written as e, l, o, u, y, ey, eh
  • “au” when said out loud can be written as ow, ou
  • “b” when said out loud can be written as p, v, bb, pp
  • “bb” when said out loud can be written as b, p, pp
  • “c” when said out loud as in the word (catch) can be written as k, g, gh, g, cc, ck
  • “c” when said out lound as in the work (chin) can be written as ch, cz, s, sh, tch, tsh, z, dg

If I were to say the last name of “Radcliffe” out loud I would be focusing on the variations of the name phonetically.   “Radcliffe” could be written

  • Rhadcliffe changing the Ra to Rha
  • Ratcliffe changing the Rad to Rat
  • Raddcliffe changing the Rad to Radd
  • Radkcliffe changing the Radc to Radk
  • Radgliffe changing the Radc to Radg
  • Radclive changing the liff to liv
  • Radcliphe changing the liff to liph

Search the original record
If the record you are viewing is a transcript, the transcriber may have misread the original record. Your focus should be to search for an original version of the record to compare if there are any differences.  Where possible, I try to make it practice to view the original.  I have found an average of 15% of the time when mistakes in transcription has been made. How do you find the original?

  • Check to see if you can see a digital version online (Note: most online databases give you the option to see digital version of the record)
  • Check to see if the FamilySearch library catalog has the record on microfilm that you order and view locally at a Family History Center
  • Write the place where the original record may be located such as courthouse/state archive and ask for copy.

Once you see the original, compare the copy of the record with the original record, watching for the suggestions made in the tables above.

Look for relatives in an index
If you are not finding your ancestor in the index, look for the names of parents, children, brothers or sisters, and uncles or aunts. If you find relatives in the index, it’s a good clue that you need search the original record to see if the person you want is mentioned in the record but was missed by the indexer.