5 Tips to Navigate the Confusing Maze of Surnames

Vicki’s Note – This is an article from Legacy Family Tree newsletter:


5 Tips to Help You Navigate the Confusing Maze of Surnames

July 23, 2015

Legacy Family Tree Newsletter

“Question: What do Sean Gough, Jean Lefevre, Giovanni Ferrari, Juan Herrero, Ivan Kowalski, Hans Schmidt, Jan Kowalski and Janos Kovacs have in common?

Answer: In Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively, all are the equivalent of John Smith. [Source: http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/ROOTS/2004-11/1100278847%5D

This Q&A is an excellent reinforcer of the notion that as genealogists we need to look beyond the familiar. We need to think outside the box. Coming from a different culture we might assume if we find an ancestor named Janos Kovacs that it’s an unusual name. But that may not be the case!

I recently learned that my maiden name of McGinnis is one of the most common names in Ireland. My son is a Schulze. I thought that was an unusual name but in Germany it’s very commonplace.

Tips to Help You Navigate the Confusing Maze of Name Variations

1. Don’t be confused by spelling. How often have you found a name in a census or other genealogy record, that was close to the name you were seeking but not exactly the same? My Peer ancestors have also had their name recorded as Pier, Pear, Peare and Pierre. Don’t discard a record with a variant spelling of your name! Remember spelling didn’t “count” and it was not consistent before the early 1900s. Many of our ancestors had little or no schooling and often they could not write their own names. That meant they could not verify that the way their name was recorded was in fact correct.

2. Foreign accents also confused English speaking clerks and that is when phonetics kicked in with clerks and census takers recording what they heard. If you are puzzled by a document, say the name out loud. Does it sound like the name you are looking for? Perhaps it is!

3. The surname you found may be the result of an error in transcribing or indexing. Look for the original document to verify what was written. Handwriting and formation of letters changed over the centuries. Early forms of the letter “S” can be mistaken for an “L” and vice versa. I once attempted in vain to explain to a client that her ancestor’s name was not Lamuel but Samuel.

The double “ss” in a surname was frequently written in a way that we read it as “fs. My husband’s Massey ancestors are frequently found erroneously indexed as Mafsey.

4. Look at other clues such as spouse, children, ages, occupation, location, etc. Could the individual you found be your ancestor?

5. Remember that your ancestor may have deliberately changed his name or may be using an abbreviated form of it. It might also be a nickname that has become the surname in use.

Case Studies

Van Valkenburg to Vollick and Follick: My great-grandmother’s surname was Vollick. Often it was recorded as Follick. Other variations I found in documents are Valck, Volk, Valic, Falic, Folic, Falk, and Falck. Why “V” and “F” interchangeably? Because the Dutch-German “V” can sound like “F” to English speaker’s ears. Remember that whoever was writing out that original record may have been an English speaking person listening to a different accent. He would write what he heard, in other words, phonetic spelling was the key to recording documents.

As I methodically researched back from my last known Vollick ancestor I discovered to my surprise that his birth surname was Van Valkenburg! He apparently was known by his nickname of Valk which over time became Vollick. How would I ever have found my ancestor if I hadn’t kept an open mind and looked at other clues? And much to my initial surprise, Van Valkenburg is not an unusual name.

Le Roy to Larroway: When Leonard-Tremi Le Roy left Quebec for New York, his name was misinterpreted by Dutch recorders as “Jonar” and then “Jonas”. His surname Le Roy (pronounced Le Raw) was misinterpreted as Larrowa which evolved into Larroway.

So be aware that bad handwriting, inability to spell, accents, and other events can change an ancestor’s name – and don’t be too quick to assume, for example, that Leonard-Tremi Le Roy is not your 5th great grandfather Jonas Larroway. If both men have the same wives and children, same birth year, same place of birth, and siblings who are identical, you can be pretty sure that you’ve found the right ancestor in the confusing maze of names in genealogy research.

Helpful Links

Surname Variations found in Ireland at http://www.rootsireland.ie/ifhf/surnames.php

The University of Pittsburgh’s Slovak Studies Program at http://www.pitt.edu/~votruba/qsonhist/lastnamesslovakiahungary.html

Norway Heritage shares common Norwegian names at http://www.norwayheritage.com/norwegian-names.htm

Dutch Patronymics of the 1600s at http://www.olivetreegenealogy.com/nn/pat.shtml

Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.”

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