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Spellchecker! Why is my Last Name Spelled Wrong?

When you are doing research based on surnames, often times you will be going along seemingly well and then suddenly come to an abrupt stop. Why? You can't find any more records under the name "Smith" - spelled S-M-I-T-H. Look a little closer-I bet if you go back a few more years, you'll find plenty more information about the "Smithe" (spelled S-M-I-T-H-E) or "Smyth" (spelled S-M-Y-T-H) family. Fact is, over the years last names have changed drastically, so be sure to search under lots of possible spellings before you give up completely.

In recent times, last names have changed for reputation reasons. For example, if there is a black sheep in your immediate family, some may choose to begin separating themselves from the stereotype by spelling their name differently. Also, new immigrants to the United States may feel they need to change their last name to become more Americanized. For example, a Hispanic family may change from Martinez to simply Martin to fit into the community better.

This happened a long time ago too. Back when there was a mad exodus from Europe to the United States, many families changed their names to fit into the American culture better. This especially happened with British immigrants who simply changed the British spelling to an American form. Mistakes were often made on Ellis Island as well. Because of the sheer volume of immigrants, workers moved as quickly as possible, so lots of typos occurred and some of these names stuck. Because of the many different languages and accents, people misheard one another as well, or workers just didn't take the time to ask for the correct spelling-there wasn't time, so last names were spelled as they sounded in the English language. To avoid the complications with getting this corrected, most simply took the new name.

During this time period and earlier, many people didn't know the difference anyway. Because the general public could not read or write, even members of the same family spelled their last names differently. If you obtain really old records, you might see your family name spelled two or more different ways in the same document. It was also not uncommon for people to sign their names as an "X," instead of spelling it out.

When you research, keep this in mind. It is vital to your documentation that you learn the history not only of your family but of the spelling of your name as well. Search through records with an eye for error and learn to detect instances when your surname evolved.

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