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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Guest Post: Disappearing Ancestors: 4 Tips for Tracing Hard-to-Find Relatives

[Note: From time to time, I have had a few guest genealogists post on my blog. This one is from Carolyn Tolman at Legacy Tree Genealogists]

One of the things I love about genealogy is the fascinating variety of names and the many forms that one particular name can take. One memorable name that I encountered recently was Cadwallader Slaughter, often shortened to Cad Slaughter. What a name! It’s a delicate science using names to determine the identity of one person, or distinguishing between many people. Here are the most significant things to remember about names in your genealogy research.

Tip #1: Pronunciation is more important than spelling

Before the standardization of spelling in the twentieth century, people spelled names according to how they sounded. As long as a name was pronounced correctly, it often didn’t matter which letters were used to spell it. The less common a name was, the more likely it was spelled in a variety of ways. A name could be spelled one way at the beginning, and another way at the end of the very same document.

Naturally, the vowels are the most changeable parts of a name. I recently did a project on the Van Wormer family of Albany County, New York. Not only did I observe that the “Van” part was optional, but I also found the following spellings for Wormer: Wurmer, Wermer, Wirmer and Warmer. Another example was the Rhodus family of Madison County, Kentucky who also went by Rhodes, Rhodis, Roads, Rodas, Roders, and Rhoads. I’ve heard families say “My ancestors belonged to the branch of the family that spelled their name this way.” While that could be true, a researcher must keep an open mind and not be hasty to reject other spellings. Other factors such as who they associated with and where they lived should be considered in determining the identity of an ancestor.

Tip #2: Names evolved from their Old World origins

The United States was populated with immigrants from other countries with their own name traditions. As they settled into their new life, they often modified their names, whether to blend in to their local culture or just to suit their personal wishes. For example, we had a hard time finding the parents of my ancestor Margaret Wire until we realized that they spelled their name “Quire.” This name had originally been “McGuire” when their ancestors had emigrated from Scotland. Again, paying more attention to the pronunciation of the name than the spelling helped us keep an open mind and recognize all of the possibilities.

Tip #3: Nicknames and abbreviations might not resemble birth names

A genealogist must be aware of common nicknames and abbreviations for common birth names in order to determine if they are dealing with the same person. Here are some related names that I often come across in my United States research:

Mary, Polly, Molly, Maria, Marie, Mariah
Anne, Hannah, Nancy, Annie, Ane, An
Margaret, Peggy, Maggie, Meg, Marge, Marguerite, Daisy
Elizabeth, Bettie, Betsy, Eliza, Lizzie, Beth
Eleanor, Nellie, Ellen, Ellie
Frances, Fannie, Veronica, Fran
Jane, Jenny, Janet, Genevieve
John, Jno., Johann, Ian, Jack, Ivan
William, Wm., Bill, Liam, Will
James, Jas.
Henry, Heinrich
Peter, Patrick
Francis (male), Frank, Franz
Robert, Robt., Bob

Tip #4: Multiple computer searches are necessary

In this day and age with our computer search capabilities, it is more important than ever to consider every possible way that a name could have been spelled. A Google search for “Rhodes Madison County Kentucky” would not yield the same results as “Rhodus Madison County Kentucky,” and valuable websites would be missed. Multiple searches with different spellings are critical to gather as much information as possible. One important note: the asterisk (*) is often used as a wildcard when one name ends in several different ways. For example, “Rho*” and “Rod*” were two search terms I used with the Rhodus family on certain websites. However, Google does not treat the asterisk in the same way. While it may be used in place of a word or an initial, such as “John * Smith” for a man who used different middle initials or names, Google does not recognize the asterisk as a replacement for letters within a name. (See our previous blog post on Google searching for more tips.)

Above all, remember to keep an open mind, consider all of the possibilities, and enjoy the wonderful variety of names in your genealogical records.

Legacy Tree Genealogists is a genealogy research firm with expertise in everything from finding elusive ancestors to breaking through genealogy bricks walls and genetic genealogy! For more information on services offered by Legacy Tree, visit their website at


  1. I recently ran into the name Arris for a female living in one of the midwestern states. Eventually I discovered her name was Iris and she was born in one of the southern states. Having lived in Virginia most of my life I immediately recognized her southern accent causing the confusion. I got a good chuckle from that one.

  2. Yes but be very careful in assuming such names are nicknames or abbreviations.
    Here in England there are many children registered with a name some consider to be a nickname or an abbreviation. Any who has searched Parish Registers must have come across Eliza or Nellie or Fanny all full names in their own right.

    Old old rule still holds firm today, never abbreviate any word you come across in your research and never try to extend any word you think may be an abbreviation.

  3. The search function of the product/site usually has an option to search for variants of a given-name (or surname) such as Ann/Anne, and often including abbreviations too. However, there are some variants that are the fault of transcription. My favourite involves "Joseph" which is often written as "Jo^sh^" (i.e. with the "sh" in superscript. And there are other names that are abbreviated with trailing superscript. The problem here is that the database does not record this fact, and so it gets indexed as "Josh". The person's name was not Josh, and they were never referred to as "Josh", but our name-indexing systems have simply made a pig's of it.

  4. When searching older records, try to think about whether or not your ancestor(s) were first generation immigrants, and if so, how thick their accent was. This can contribute to the variety of spellings you'll find. Also, in addition to accents, speech impediments should be considered and hearing difficulties of the enumerator. I think my favorite spelling of my mother's maiden name is Quinkey... her maiden name was Krinkey, Anglicized from Krienke when my great great grandparents came over from Germany in 1868.

  5. excellent for briefing extra information etc on Scottish history
    thanking you