December 10th, 2012

What’s in a Name? How to Get Around Surname Misspellings in Census Records

It can be very frustrating searching census records and finding no correct entry for the person you seek. This can also be one of the hardest problems for a genealogist to solve. Patronymic names – a name based on that of a person’s father or grandfather such as Richards and Richardson – are very prone to spelling errors, and these types of name are notoriously unreliable. Other mistakes can be the result of human error. Consider the case of an enumerator encountering a person with an unfamiliar accent and its accompanying pronunciations. He might spell a name as he hears it rather than as it should be. Then there comes the transcription errors. Data entry staff may misread an enumerator’s handwriting, and consequently it enters the database with the wrong spelling. These are the most common errors encountered when searching for names in the census, so how does a researcher get around them?

Keep an Open Mind and Play the Wildcard

In my own personal research I’ve come to find that it pays to keep an open mind about surname spellings in census reports, and sometimes it pays off handsomely. Of course considering every possible spelling variant of a name would be a long and tedious process, and then there is still no guarantee that there is a spelling error you haven’t considered. The various databases I have used in the past have mostly incorporated some sort of option for finding variants in a single search. You are probably familiar with Soundex, which is one of them, but another I have found very useful is the Wildcard option.

The “wildcard” is a special character that you can use to stand for any letter, including no letter at all. In most cases it is the asterisk (*). The beauty of the wildcard is in its simplicity. By using it you can search for variations in surname spellings where the last letter is different such as in: Brook, Brooks, and Brooke. You can search for all three names by using Brook*, though the results will include names like Brooker or Brookbank as well. It can also be substituted for a vowel in the middle of a name. For instance Rothw*ll finds both Rothwell and Rothwall

Wildcards are especially useful for dealing with transcription errors as they allow you to avoid the letters that have been wrongly entered. There is of course the disadvantage that you may miss stranger or less common misspellings as it relies on your ability to imagine what variants may exist for a particular name. Another limitation is that many of the online indexes don’t allow you to use wildcards at the beginning of a field, though the Irish National Archives site and Scotland’s People are exceptions.

This is unfortunate as with Victorian spellings that is usually where the errors occur, especially with the elaborate Victorian initials. You also need to enter at least three characters before the wildcard, so although you might be able to use Alcr*ft to find Alcraft and Alcroft, you would need to conduct a separate search to find other variants such as Aldcroft or Allcraft. In addition to being a tool for finding name variations though, wildcards can also be used in deciphering place name spelling variations, a valuable tool when searching for birthplaces.

A Note about Forename Variations 

Forenames have their own unique set of problems, but there are basically three main reasons you won’t fins a particular forename. They are:

  • The person being enumerated uses their middle name as their first, and so gave their middle name to the enumerator
  • The enumerator recorded a nickname such as Bill instead of William
  • The name was abbreviated to an initial such as W or Wm, for William

Most of the databases recognize these possibilities and take steps to combat them. They don’t all use the same methods however, so you will need to consult their help section to see if they provide that information. Most of the large websites automatically return a wide range of first name spelling variations, though that can be overridden by choosing exact match if it is their default setting. Always check your initial results to see what variations you captured, and of course you can use the wildcard option. This will not catch any shortened or abbreviated forms of first names or nicknames though.

Hopefully these tips will help you to find your ancestor if their name has been misspelt. Once you do locate them, you can record their data in one of our specialized Free Downloadable Census Forms. They are easy to read and work with, fully comprehensive, and will assist you in recording your data in a professional organized manner so that you can present your family history in a clear, concise, professional way.