Answers for the beginner, the befuddled and anyone hitting a brick wall.
Q. I keep finding my family name spelled differently. Why does this happen and how can I make sure I'm not missing a spelling variant when I search?
A. I've heard many people say, "That can't be my ancestor because we spell our name differently." I made that mistake for many years. In my personal research, it's turned out that Francis Johnson and Franz Janzen were exactly the same man, with the same wife and children. Beginning genealogists often disregard valid information on an ancestor simply because of the way a name is spelled.
Remember, we enjoy much more formal education than our ancestors typically did. They may not have been able to read or write English, or even to speak the language well. It's easy to imagine how a New England town clerk could record Johnson when speaking to an older German man named Janzen, or how a census taker in the Deep South could mistakenly record Capley for the young southern belle named Kepley. National and regional dialects can also dramatically affect the way a name might be spelled phonetically. And some of our ancestors anglicized their names intentionally, while others simply preferred a new spelling. The spelling of the name doesn't change who that person was—after all, how often has someone misspelled your name?
The secret to keeping it all straight is called Soundex. Developed to address the name-spelling problems of the 1880 census, Soundex has remained a valuable tool for family historians ever since. So in the Soundex system, Johnson, Janzen, Johanson and Jansen are the same name—they're all J525. Sometimes a name is spelled different ways even in the same immediate family: One brother is John Smith while the other is William Smythe. Using Soundex, however, they become John and William S530.