Surname Histories


In genealogy research we all get to the one point when we are looking at other families and wondering if they connect to ours. Especially in the surname is somewhat close to ours. When you begin your family research, you know how the family spells its name. But, that is current. Do you know that your family surname could have been spelled differently?

Lets take for example the Courteney Cox episode of Who Do You Think You Are? While in England (or should that be whilst, since we are discussing England) one of the surnames that came up was Berkley. Courteney pronounced it like burk, which I will admit is the exact way I would have pronounced it. The archivist she was talking with quickly corrected her pronunciation by telling her it had a long a sound as in bark. He also showed her records where the names were spelled with an e and other records had the a. Yet, it is still the same family.

Here are a few tips to help us research all the variants of a surname:

  1.  Take other pronunciations of the surname into account
  2. Remember that at one point your ancestors probably could not read or write, which means the records are filled out by phonetic spelling that someone else decided.
  3. Knowing that phonetically the names can sound different based on how your ancestor spoke. Make sure you try and figure out how they said their name, accent included and you might come up with another version.
  4. If you cannot think of other ways to spell your name, google “history of surname ____” and see what you get. My favorite websites to check are the House of Names (I have never purchased anything from them, I use it strictly for information purposes) and the Surname Database.

How I use this information:

  • When I do client research, I make sure that I give my client all the available spellings in my reports so that if they move forward with another genealogist in the future the client knows the variations that should be checked as well.
  • In my consultations with beginners I always tell that spelling means nothing.
  • For my personal research, my surnames that have many variants I will keep a spreadsheet of all possibilities I find.

I hope this information is helpful to those of you who are new to genealogy and a good reminder to those who have been researching for years.

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About Terri

Terri O’Connell is a professional genealogist in the Chicago area, focusing on Midwestern United States Genealogy, with a main focus in Illinois and a special interest in Irish research. She is also the owner of Cruise Planners – O’Connell Cruise and Travel, a full service travel company. Their mission is to encompass the full family: vacations, reunions, and history travel. Terri is a travel enthusiast with a passion for genealogy and enjoys bringing the two together to assist her clients in their travel needs. You can find Terri online at www.facebook.com/cruiseplannersoconnell, www.facebook.com/tracingmyfamily. Terri is the Executive Director of The In-Depth Genealogist, www.theindepthgenealogist.com.

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