Name Variations and Different Spellings Sleuthing

By Courtney Henderson

Do you hate spelling tests? Maybe you should have lived centuries ago. Spelling wasn’t as important in our ancestors’ time as it is now—they didn’t even have a dictionary until Noah Webster published the first American one in 1806. Also, fewer Americans could read and write. So people wrote words however they thought the words sounded—including names.

That means your ancestors probably spelled their last name differently from you at some point. Record takers might have written down your ancestors’ names differently, too.


If you search a computer database for genealogy, you may also discover that the person who entered the information typed an ancestor’s name wrong, or mixed up the order of letters.

So part of being a family detective is hunting for different spellings of your relatives’ names: Just because it’s not the “right” spelling doesn’t mean the person isn’t your relative. (The reverse is true, too: Not everyone with the same last name spelled the same way is related.)

Let’s practice name sleuthing. Next to the names below, write down spelling variations a genealogist should look for. How many alternate spellings of your last name can you think of?


Example: Jenson
Jensen Jenssen Janson Jansen

  1. O’Neill ________________________________________________
  2. Miller _________________________________________________
  3. Henderson ______________________________________________
  4. Simmons ________________________________________________
  5. Stevens ________________________________________________
  6. McDonald _______________________________________________
  7. Gardner ________________________________________________
  8. Garrett ________________________________________________
  9. Walters ________________________________________________
  10. Newman _________________________________________________

Your last name: _________________________________

Variations: ______________________________________

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