By: Jonesborough Genealogical Society
When researching in the past for your family history, the point is reached where census records, deeds, wills, marriages, etc., must be studied. To do this properly, an alphabetic list of the surnames you are searching is needed for checking the indices of these records. Until about the mid-19thcentury, the spelling of surnames was not as standardized as it is now. A person might spell his name several ways. For example, tombstones in the Gresham cemetery spell the name both Gresham and Grisham. Also, the court clerk who recorded it might come up with more unique spellings. When making your list, spell the name every possible way it might be pronounced. For example, if you are looking for Masengill in the later 1700s you will find it spelled Masingill/Massingil/Masingail/Massingal/Massingall/Masengell/ Masencal/Massengale/Massingill/Masingale and Masengale. Checking this won’t cause much trouble, though because all these names will be close to each other in the index. But, if you’re looking for Peoples, do you also have Pabbles and Pebbles on your list.
Names which begin with vowels and H or Y should be looked at elsewhere. If you’re looking for Humphreys, you probably have Humphries, but do you also have Umphries and Umphreys? If you’re looking for Erwin, check not only Erwine, Ervin and Ervine, but also the name spellings with A and I – Arwin, Arwine, Arvin, Arvine, Irwin, Irvin and Irvine. The name pronounced locally as Bales is also spelled Beals and Bails; however, in the early records, the name spelled Bailes is usually Bayless, which is also spelled Bailey/Balice/Balis/Bailys. Notice the word “usually” because a few times the Bailes spelling is used for Bails.
There were many more German families in this area than most people realize. The Germans were heavy settlers in Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, then moved on down the valley to East Tennessee. Think back to conditions at that time (1700s to early 1800s). Survival was the most important goal on the frontier – far more so than getting a classical education. Also, even if the German immigrants were educated, it was not in English. The court clerks and registrars were English. Therefore, when the immigrant gave his German name, the clerk spelled it the way it sounded in English. If you’re a McInturf from Unicoi County, don’t plan a trip to Ireland or Scotland to find your roots. You’re probably a descendant of a German named Mecantorf who settled in Shenandoah County, Virginia in the mid-1700s. One of this writer’s favorite transformations is Ertsche Morphe (German) who became Archie Murphy (Irish). In addition to the changes by sound, many Germans Anglicized their names by taking the literal English translation for the German, thus Schwartz became Black, Zimmerman became Carpenter, Vogel became Bird, Yeager became Hunter, etc.
If your ancestor had an occupation which could be a surname, check that occupation in the index and be very suspicious if there are three names. Very few people had middle names, but occupations were used to identify them. In an earlier column it was mentioned that Jacob Brown, wagonmaker, was given that way in the records to distinguish him from Jacob of the Nolichuckey. In one Washington County court record, a man is given as John Lemmon Taylor, which should be John Lemmon, tailor. Composed names may be abbreviated. It is almost a certainty that Michael S. Peters is one of the records should be Michael Smithpeters.
When you come to given names other interesting situations surface. The Germans were an exception to the rules of the middle names, for they often gave the same first name to all their sons, such as Hans Josep, Hans Peter, and Hans Frederic. It is then understood that they went by their middle names. Most of them dropped this naming pattern after a generation or two in this country. On the English side, somewhat inexplicable nicknames can cause problems. For example, Polly is the English nickname for Mary. If you find a Nancy Henderson one place and an Ann Henderson another, those are not two different women, nor is it one woman named Nancy Ann. Nancy is the English nickname for Ann.
No matter how well you analyze the names you’re working on, spelling variations will show up later. It is important, therefore, that your records show what names were checked in each source. For example, you may have checked the Washington County Deeds, 1775-1850 for Jordan, Jurdon and Jourdon. Later, you realize that the name may also have been spelled Gourdan. If records have been kept, you will know that only the G’s need to be checked and will avoid wasting time redoing work you’ve already done.