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How did you get that name?

wcccd news logoBy Carolyn Carter

Deciding which ancestral line you want to research can be difficult. One of the greatest challenges my genealogy students at Wayne County Community College District have in researching their ancestors is finding them using a surname (last name).  Researching the spelling of surnames in how they sound, as opposed to how we spell them today, can be a painstaking challenge like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

The one tip I always give my students is, “learn how to spell your ancestors’ names incorrectly.” This is a great research technique for finding names. So I play the ancestry name game with my students. They write the name of an ancestor at least 10 times in how it sounds not how it’s spelled. If you only look for an ancestor using the spelling the way you use it today, chances are you will not get very far.

How can you ever find an ancestor with so many different spellings of one name? By taking your time and examining each document carefully; comparing dates of other documents and by collecting as many records on the ancestor as you can. This was a source of frustration for me as well, when I began looking for family names with no results. I felt as if I was working in circles, chasing the same name over and over with zero results.

People often changed their name to conceal nationality or religious orientation. They changed names to assimilate into the dominant culture. They would drop a letter, reverse the first and last name, and even use the middle name as the last (surname).  Also, given names may have been abbreviated or with alternate spellings.

Edmonia Currie, left, and Fletchie Kirby

Edmonia Currie, left, and Fletchie Kirby

Names such as Edward may be Ed, and Edmonia may be Monie. People forced by governments to adopt surnames which were not a part of their culture or were not of their choosing would often shed themselves of such names at the first opportunity.

The reasons why our ancestors changed their names we may never know; we just have to sift through the documents to find answers. In some of the indexes you search, spelling variations may just be plain typos:

A few of the more common ones to watch for:

– Letter transpositions — “Grover” becomes “Rgover” or “Smith” becomes “Simth”

– Adjacent letters on the keyboard —”Grover” becomes “Grober” or “Smith” becomes “Wmith”

– Dropping a letter — “Grover” becomes “Grver” or “Smith” becomes “Smit”

Word spellings most often are just an inconvenience, but changes in name spellings are much more significant. It is important to keep different possible name spellings in mind when you are researching, so you don’t overlook records that might refer to your family , according to

The further back you go in your research, the more you will find cases of ancestors who couldn’t read and write. Many didn’t even know how their own names were spelled, only how to pronounce them. Therefore, when they gave their names to clerks, census enumerators, clergymen or other officials, that person wrote the name the way it sounded to him or her (

Using the ancestry name game, I located my great-great-grandmother Edmonia Stanfield Currie on the 1870 United States Census. Marriage documents proved she married Horace Currie in Haywood County, Brownsville, Tenn. I also found them together on a Haywood County marriage index at the Tennessee State archives in Nashville. The research became clouded with questions similar to the challenges my students are currently facing. I found Edmonia used her maiden and last name interchangeably on several documents. On Edmonia’s son Jessie Currie’s death certificate dated June 1, 1951, her name was listed as Stansfield; with an “s.” She used both Stanfield and Stansfield. Vital records listed her as Edmonia C. Stanfeld.

To make matters worse, documents from early 1900s had Edmonia mixed up with her granddaughter named Monie’ Jr., who died August 31, 1935. The records were recorded with Monia as the mother and Horace as the father. There were other documents that listed Monie, Jr. and Monie and vice versa. This is a researcher’s nightmare.

A tip used with my students is backtracking each document; researching death records first then birth records. Edmonia was a woman of Native American descent.  We have been told she had strong masculine features. Stories had it she was a woman of great strength and faith; took no stuff from no one and loved her 21 children very much.

My great-grandmother Cassie Currie Kirby was her youngest child. She died at the age of 110 in 1998. The Kirby name was another research debacle. My great grandfather Fletcie Kirby was of Irish and Jamaican descent, and I found many spelling differences in his records as well.

Public records of Haywood County, Brownsville, Tennessee, spelled his surname at least seven different ways, but I have found it spelled many, more ways than that.  The Tennessee state marriage files have shown him as Fletch Kerby.  In the 1910 United State Census, he is Fleetcy Curby; for the 1920 United States Census he was Fletzi Kirby, Flace Kerley, Floree Kerley, Fleece Kerby; and in the 1940 United States Census he was Fletcre Kerby.  Finally his United States Social Security document and records from Ford Motor Company retirement lists him as Fletcie Kirby — a spelling we were more familiar with.

Once slavery was abolished, our African American ancestors moved around a lot and often worked outside the home as sharecroppers or loaned out to work on farms, mines or in the prison system. It is rare you will find your ancestors all together in one household on any census document.

From 1890 to 1920, the censuses were conducted as of the first Monday in August; this was a challenge for the enumerators because in the Southern states this was harvest time for cotton and many people would not be at home, but working in the fields. If a neighbor was found they were asked about names of people in the area. Remember they could not spell, read or write either.

“We also need to remember that the census was not created for genealogists,” according to “They are a serendipitous genealogical result of the government’s program to account for the U.S. population. Census takers may have thought the records would never be seen again, resulting in less than accurate recording. Thus, strange or obviously incorrect information is riddled throughout the census records.

“As you look for your ancestors, remember to examine each potential record with a shrewd but realistic eye. Understanding the limitations of records such as the census will help you become a better genealogist, researcher, family historian or griot. It will also save you a lot of headaches,” the website advises.

Census documents were not the only records with spelling differences; vital records, immigration and travel records also had different spellings for ancestor’s names.

So if you are researching your ancestors, don’t give up. Keep a list of possible alternate names. As you learn about names, you also learn history. For instance, my Irish ancestors name had a close connection with the land and specific areas on that country. Practice spelling your ancestors’ names the way they sound, make it a fun event at holiday time and family gatherings.

Expect the unexpected — surname variations can create unnecessary brick walls. Use other information like dates and places to corroborate and validate your ancestor’s life. As time goes on and you dig deeper into your ancestors’ lives you will learn to “roll with it,” and not get so hung up on spelling of names, but recognize the important thing is to remember there is always a common variation regardless of how the name is spelled.

Next time we will dive into the elusive women and ways to find them in our ancestry.

For more information on the United States Census records, visit For information on naming  variations, visit or

Carolyn Haliburton Carter, a genealogy instructor at Wayne County Community College District, has been a professional genealogist for more than 15 years, tracing both her paternal and maternal lineage to the early 1800s. Contact her at

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