Surname Variations & Name Changes:
Elusive Ancestors

Surname variations and changes are the bane of a family history researcher's existence. Have you ever searched unsuccessfully for an ancestor on a family history site?

Or, you found them in two different census documents, but they did not appear to be in the census between those two?

Alternatively, you found them in several different family history documents, but the information in the various documents, including the surname, was not consistent?

Enough to make you tear your hair out? You are not alone! Changes to the surname, for whatever reason, are one of the main causes of brick walls in genealogy research. It's often necessary to put on the detective's badge and get to work!

A few things to keep in mind when searching electronically for an ancestor:

1. Surname Variations due to Spelling

Remember that spelling was not standardized to any great extent until relatively recently - some sources say until the mid-1800s. Add to that the number of different regional accents in Britain, and the fact that, even after "standardization", some enumerators or parish record-keepers were not good spellers, and it is easy to see how surname variations could arise when pen was put to paper. So, for example, if you find a record that lists the surname as "Pettifer", while all of the other records show it as "Piccaver" or "Paccever", don't assume that it is a different family.

Further, family members themselves would likely have been blissfully unaware of surname variations, even within the same parish records, as the vast majority of the people were functionally illiterate before the 1900s.

Hence, it is possible that two branches of the same family living in different areas - or even in the same area! - could end up with two different spellings of the family surname (i.e., Denby versus Denbigh; Shirley versus Shurley or Shurly, or even Searle; Morley versus Marly; and so on). Indeed, I have seen an example of a father and son whose surnames were different in their spelling on a birth record!

In some cases, you may find that an ancestor is listed with surname variations due to spelling at his birth, marriage, and death!

Most genealogy databases take the reality of these surname variations into account, and have a “Soundex” or similar feature which provides the name as input, as well as all similar-sounding names listed together under that Soundex code.

This is why, when you do a search on a particular surname in a database, some of the possible "matches" that appear on the screen seem at first glance to be completely unrelated to the name as entered, until you think about the factors mentioned above (regional accents, spelling variations, etc.)

The following is an example, from the “freeREG” website. I searched for burials from 1790 to 1810, for the name "John Howse" in Northamptonshire, and checked the "Soundex" box. The results reveal a number of surname variations for this name, as follows (I removed the last three columns due to lack of space and relevance):

#Record Type Burial Date Surname Forename County
1 Burials 06 May 1796 HICKS Letitia Northamptonshire
2 Burials 29 Mar 1802 HICKS Edward Northamptonshire
3 Burials 26 Mar 1795 HAIGH Sarah Northamptonshire
4 Burials 22 Jun 1791 HOWES John Northamptonshire
5 Burials 07 Feb 1790 HEWS Ann Northamptonshire
6 Burials 05 Sep 1809 HICKS John Northamptonshire

The surname variations for the name Howse, as illustrated, range from Hicks to Haigh, Howes and Hews. A search for the same name and time period in Norfolk yields an even longer list of surnames as variations: Hayes, Hawes, Hawkes, Higgs, High, Hogg, and Hook!

Painting "Hmmm... How to spell my name ... is it Wright? ... or maybe Right? perhaps Rite? Write? Wryt? ... Painting "School Boy", by Albert Anker. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, of course, name changes occurred deliberately, for various reasons. I heard of one couple who, with their children, were recorded as the "Laframboise" family on at least two census documents. The mystery of where they had disappeared to on the next census was solved when someone noted a family named "Raspberry" was living at the same location as the Laframboise family had been. (For those not familiar with French, 'framboise' means 'raspberry').

Some families will translate their names to English, as this one did; others may change the spelling of their names to differentiate between one branch of the family and another. A fellow researcher told me that his branch of a particular family moved to the Berkshires, and dropped the 'k' from the middle of their name, so that they would not be confused with other families of the same name, some of whom were very rich and well known.

I know of at least two situations in which a man changed either his surname, or his entire name, in order to disassociate himself from a father or step-father whose behaviour he was upset with - a real "headache" for us as family historians, if we have no "insider knowledge" gained from speaking with older family members about the surname variation!

2. Marriages and Remarriages can result in unofficial surname changes for children

If you are having difficulty finding a child or teenager, one thing you might try is to look for a remarriage of one of the individual's parents.

I once found the children I was searching for listed on a census document as having the stepfather's name shortly after the mother divorced and remarried. In the next census, at which time the children were of age, and in all subsequent documents until they married, the children used their original surname.

In another instance, I could not find a particular family in the Irish census documents for 1901, although I knew, from other information I had, that they had to be there. I discovered that the husband's mother had married between the 1891 and 1901 census events.

I also noted that one of the couple’s children had a somewhat unusual first name. I entered the child's name and year of birth, with no surname, in the 1901 Irish census search function. What opened up was a page containing all of the children in the Irish census bearing that name - I think there were half a dozen of them - including one bearing the new step-father's family name! When I clicked on the link to view her other family members, there was the missing family group!

This resulted in a number of discoveries. First, the family was listed as living in a military barracks. That led to locating the husband's military records. It turned out the husband had enlisted in the mid-1890s using his step-father's surname, and stated that he was age 18, rather than his actual age of 16.

In the normal course of events, I would never have looked for him under his step-father's name, and if I had stumbled upon his records by chance, I likely would have rejected them as relating to him, due to the name and age discrepancies.

In the 1911 Irish census, the family had reverted to the husband's original surname, although for military purposes, he continued using the step-father's name.

I then went looking for solid proof that this truly was one person with two identities, rather than two separate individuals. A later entry in the  military record re-enrolled the husband in the army for World War I using the step-father's name, but written along the side of the page near the top was "alias [birth name]", and his real date of birth, which matched the information I had.

It was one of those "eureka" moments - seems to me I shot my fist up into the air as I uttered a "Yes!!", which startled my husband! - as it tied everything together, and provided "proof positive" that the military man using the step-father's name and the civilian with the family using the original surname were one and the same person.

3. Female Surnames Change due to Marriage.

"Search for females using their maiden name until marriage, and then use their married name thereafter."

This seems a rather obvious statement to make, at least in the English-speaking world - although I note that many Scottish women are accustomed to keeping their maiden surname, and that this is becoming more and more common in many countries in modern times.

However, when one is "in the thick of the moment", it is easy to forget this simple rule. Many times, I have seen postings on genealogy forums in which it was apparent that researchers were searching for a woman using her married name, during a time period that was long before she was married.

I also have seen at least one entry in a family tree posted on the internet which indicates that the family history researcher had accepted that a particular woman's birth (i.e., Mary Jarvis nee Jones) had been proven by finding a two-year-old with her married name (ie., Mary Jarvis) in the census documents. I gather this happens more often than we think!

4. Surname Variations in situations of Illegitimacy, Marriage, and Remarriage.

One rather extreme recent situation that I looked into illustrates how several different surnames can be used in one family.

A young woman had married and had a couple of children, following which her husband died.

She then either remarried, or lived common-law with, the father of her next two children. (I can find no record of a marriage, but that does not mean that it did not occur).

The two children of the second relationship were mysteriously absent from one of the census documents, when they were in their teens. The son was named Leara, a very unusual first name for the time. However, a search using this name only, along with his birth year, yielded no fruit.

I eventually found them living with their maternal grandparents and assisting them in running their inn. The surname listed for the teens was that of their mother's first marriage, rather than the second, and even then, was misspelled sufficiently that it did not appear when that surname was searched, although it was accurately transcribed. Further, the transcriber had entered Leara as Sarah, which explained why I could not find him using his unusual first name!

This use of the mother's first married name, rather than her second, for these children born to the second relationship was the first clue that the blended family might be using the two surnames interchangeably.

Leara's sister went on to have a couple of children out of wedlock; she then married, but the union did not last long. A number of other children followed, some of whom were given her married surname; others were registered under one or the other of their grandmother's two married names.

In the census documents, all three surnames were used at different times for some of the children. In each instance, however, the first names and birth years of the children were the same, and there were always other family members around - her parents or her brother and sister-in-law - which proved it was the same family.

In this particular situation, it was necessary to go back two generations, using the census documents, to determine how the surnames were linked, and how they were being used interchangeably, in order to verify that the woman identifying herself as the mother, using three different surnames on the various birth registration and census documents, was indeed the same person.

It took a good deal of "mental gymnastics" to resolve all of the intracacies of that story, only part of which I have related here!

Immigrants, Union Station, TorontoWikimedia Commons

5. Surname Variations due to Immigration

Many people also experienced surname variations when immigrating from their home country to a country whose official language was different from their mother tongue. Busy immigration officials would record names as they heard them pronounced, through the filter of their own mother tongue, of course.  

In other instances, it was the ship's porter who was responsible for recording the passengers' names and other information for the passenger manifest, and the immigration officials used that document for recording immigrant arrivals.

This resulted in the "anglicization" of the spelling of many names for people coming into English-speaking countries. Immigration officials in Ellis Island, New York apparently were infamous for this. It therefore is necessary to keep an open mind, and an open "ear", when researching anyone, but particularly someone coming from a country where a language other than English is spoken.

One family I know changed the last few letters of their name from "skij" to "skey" when they came to Canada, so that the pronunciation in English would be very close to what it was in their native tongue. In that particular case, the surname variation was "self-inflicted", in order to preserve pronunciation!

Conclusions about Surname Variations

These few examples serve to illustrate the creativity of the human mind in dealing with different situations, which results in surname variations of many different kinds.

They also reveal some of the resulting difficulties we as family historians face in trying to unravel the sometimes very tangled webs woven in the past, as we attempt to trace our ancestors.

Luckily, we can be just as creative as those who lived centuries ago, and with a little luck and "detective work", our sleuthing will yield positive results!

Go from "Surname Variations" to "Origin of Surnames"

Go from "Surname Variations" to "Naming Conventions"

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

What's New?
is now on Facebook! For daily updates
and the latest
in genealogy news,
as well as reminders re upcoming webinars,

Join us on Facebook!

Looking for genealogy-themed t-shirts, mugs, iPad cases, and giftware? Click on the links in the widget for more information!

Upcoming Webinars

Click here for upcoming webinars, courtesy of Geneawebinars.

Heard the buzz about the new Flip-Pal scanner? See my review, here, or click on the ad, below, to go directly to their website.

Looking into DNA testing for genealogy purposes

Try 23andMe, or FTDNA (click the links below).