Ancestors weren't the best spellers.

A person by any other surname could still be your ancestor. No matter which country your forebears hailed from, your surname quite possibly underwent numerous evolutions before it appeared on your birth certificate.

Because literacy for common folks is a rather recent development and because the spelling of names has never been standardized, there is no right way to spell any surname. Further, the spelling of a surname may vary from one generation to the next.

Although we tend to focus on changes that occurred after an immigrant arrived in America, the fact is, surnames were often altered in the ancestral country. Between 1810 and 1838, in what is now Slovakia, my ancestors' surname evolved from Karchnak to Karchnjak to Karnyak over the course of three generations.

As with many immigrants, the name underwent additional changes after my family's original immigrant settled in this country. In 1900, my great-grandfather became a U. S. citizen under the surname Karhnak. His tombstone reads Carnock. Most of his kids spelled it Carnack.

For some reason, this concept continues to elude some researchers. They reject the possibility that they could be descendants of anyone whose surname isn't spelled exactly like their own. These people are missing the boat.

There are a multitude of reasons why names changed. Some early immigrants could read and write, but not in English. Names were modified while being transcribed. Immigrants who spoke with thick accents were easily misunderstood. When English-speaking courthouse clerks, census takers and other government employees recorded foreign names, they tended to spell them phonetically. The German surname Ulrich morphed into Ullery, Whoolery and Oolery. Writtenour, Ritenour and Ridenour were synonymous. Dumbauld turned into Tambald. Puh, Pfau and Buh evolved into Poe.

Foreign names were sometimes loosely translated into English. Schneider is roughly the German equivalent of the English word "tailor." More than one Schneider (Snider, Snyder) turned into a Taylor.

Many immigrants intentionally "Americanized" their surnames to assimilate more easily and to symbolically start a new life. Snidemueller got shortened to Mueller and eventually altered to Miller. MacMurray converted to Murray.

Consistency wasn't a priority either. In one ancestor's will, her name alternately appears as Murray, Murry, and Mury. Around 1900, all branches of the family switched to the version with the "a." How they collectively decided on that particular spelling remains a mystery.

A rise in the nation's literacy level brought some consistency to the spelling of surnames, at least for those families whose roots were firmly planted here. But even the most educated suffer from memory lapses. On their applications for Social Security cards, two siblings recalled their mother's birth name quite differently. One put Annie M. Gary. The other wrote Annie McGarry. In the obituary of yet another sibling, the name appeared as McGarrity.

Annie's maiden name is given as McGarry on her death certificate. Annie outlived her husband. If he had provided the information for her death certificate, her maiden name might have been spelled McGeary as it was on their marriage license application.

In retrospect, the confusion is somewhat understandable. After they emigrated to America, Annie's brother, Tom, began spelling his last name "McGarry." Who knows why? Since he was the only male family member living here, that's what stuck in everybody's mind.

Seasoned genealogists know it's essential to consider all potential spellings of one's surname, regardless of what time frame they're researching. Even alphabetical order isn't a certainty. Ulrich to Oolery is quite a stretch.

The best way to approach the surname dilemma is by acquiring some basic knowledge about the topic and by keeping an open mind. You can learn more about name changes by visiting the library or by logging on to http://rwguide.rootsweb.com/lesson8.htm and http://www.ins.usdoj.gov/graphics/index.htm.

Copyright © 2002 Donna Murray Allen. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.