Problems with Names

Finding the documents for your ancestors is thrilling. It may lead to an addiction to genealogy and family history. However, there is a challenge when their names are difficult to spell or pronounce. Another problem is interpreting the handwriting on the document.

The name on my grandfather’s manifest was correct but the indexer recorded with the wrong first four letters in the indexed record. Another set of grandparents dropped a few letters in their name once they arrived and this variation made the search very frustrating. I also had difficulty because first names were Americanized and I had to learn the Polish name that appeared on the manifest.

The myth of name changes

Many families believe immigration officials changed family names when the immigrants entered America. However, this is a myth. Officials usually recorded the names on passenger manifests based on official documents presented by the immigrant to the shipping line at the time of boarding. Changing their names would be illegal. Also, immigration stations were staffed with large numbers of translators to help ensure officials recorded accurately the information that was given by the immigrants. If families changed the spelling of their surnames, they did it after arrival, and this was usually to make it easier for the people around them to pronounce and write their name.

Name variations and spelling

Some instances of differences in names found on documents may have been caused when the recording person wrote the name phonetically. Immigrants may not have caught the misspelling of their name because the immigrant may have been illiterate. Also, the immigrant may have recognized their name written in the Cyrillic alphabet or Hebrew but did not know what the person wrote because he used the Latin alphabet.

Other problems were the given names found on documents. The immigrant may have preferred to use their middle name in their daily life, but official documents required their full Christian name. Another challenge we have is to identify the European spelling of the given names.

Searching

Remembering that documents may list your ancestor’s name as a variant should help you find your ancestor faster. Use the correct spelling first and if you cannot find them, use name variations and wildcards. First names are important in your search, and the record may list one of the variations of a given name. Sometimes it is best to use part of the given name with wildcards to reduce the problem with the given name variants. Research the spellings of given names for the countries of your ancestors and find books that provide surname variations

We are descendants of immigrants, and our ancestors contributed to the tremendous growth in America. The industrial growth in the 1900s could not have happened without the immigrants. Find the documents that add to their story to honor them and save for your future generations.

Be patient and remember to have fun looking for your family history.

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