Saturday, December 15, 2012

Genealogy Tip

Genealogical tip of the day: when searching for your immigrant ancestors, always consider various ways of spelling the last name.  Spelling changes are a common occurrence and for good (and perhaps not so good) reasons. For instance, many of our ancestors may have been illiterate and were not able to spell their name to anyone who were recording their names on passenger lists and port-of-entry registers. We need to consider language barriers--thick accents are sometimes misunderstood, especially when port-of-entry workers only spoke English and not accustomed to speaking with non-English speakers. And not every immigrant spoke English!  Such awkward conversations lead to a variety of translations and spellings (and misspellings) of names.

We should also consider ethnic or cultural situations. Many immigrants understood that if their name sounded too "ethnic", they might face discrimination. Consider names like O'Brian, MacDougall, or McShane.  All three can be translated as "son of Brian", "son of Dougell", or "son of Shane" back home. But here in the U.S., it's very Irish or Scottish, isn't it? Many immigrants chose to anglicize their names in order to fully assimilate into the American culture, therefore, the O, Mc and Mac were dropped. It often became an advantage when looking for work and housing in the 18th and 19th centuries.

 However, there's another consideration: Brian can be spelled as Brien, or Brion. Dougell can be spelled Dougel. And Shane may be spelled Shain, or Shaine. One of my ancesters spelled his name "Kane".  But it also can be spelled Kain, Cane, Caine, Cayne, or Kayne.  Doubling the consonents is also a common practice--Kanne, Briann, etc.

Why so many different possibilities? We already know about anglicization, but we may consider other possibilities. For instance, if there is a family fued, one branch may wish to change the spelling in order to disassociate themselves from other branches of the family. Or for the sake of vanity--we know that entertainers change their names to appear more attractive and memorable to their fans and audiences. Or, if a family member became a criminal and wished to avoid the law--and in that case, may change the name completely!

So, when searching census records and passenger lists, please consider spelling variations. Knowing your variations can speed up your search and make your search more successful.

So, how many different ways can you spell your ancestors' names?

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