This is from a conversation with a co-worker the other day that made us both ponder for a bit.
Any person who has delved into doing genealogical research can tell you about the struggles of identifying the correct surname when finding people -- but why is this?
If you dig into history, there a number of reasons why surnames changed or became confused over the years. Some reasons we have heard more commonly, and they make sense to us. Others are just plain old mistakes.
We have heard that many surnames were taken from a plantation or from a family that owned slaves or immigrants. Likewise, at least with male descendants, we see a lot of adding “son” to the father's name -- for example, Olaf has children and they immigrate and become known as the Olafsons. I’m not sure, and it may lead to the next muse, about why “daughter” is not represented as such. Obviously we have some ideas due to the way women were treated in those times, but it would be interesting to chase down more details.
From there, we segway into the mistakes that make us ponder: Perhaps an Olafson once said their last name to a recordkeeper and that person incorrectly recorded it as Olafsen, or Olufson, or even Olufsen. Now you have four spellings of a name, and they all sound pretty much the same (just an example I made up, not to reflect on any real person).
As we pondered this, we theorized that perhaps the confusion has to do with a combination of verbal communication along with many other factors. If, perhaps, a young person once told someone that he was Eric’s son, then it may have been lost as to whether that was Eric, Erik, Erick, and so on. It may be that the son himself never wrote his own name, as he may not have known how to read or write.
Whatever the case, the incorrect name snuck it’s way into official documents, and many times the same verbal communication to another person is how future documents got recorded. It’s most likely just a consequence of how things used to get done, but it grew into a huge variety of “new” names that veered off into different family lines subsequently treated as individual families.
My own surname, Mitchell, has two "Ls" at the end. I often tell people when clarifying the spelling that we have two because they were free! All my life, I have stated my name to people as, "Kevin J. Mitchell, with two 'Ls.'" I even occasionally have to add, "Kevin, with an 'I' before the 'N.'" My grandfather brought the name with him from Scotland, so we know it never changed.
That brings us to another reason names get altered. This one applies more to given names than surnames, but surely that’s not exclusive. My own sister at some point joined the group of "Y" to "Iers." She was Kathy (Kathleen) and is now Kathi -- much like her counterparts Toni, Lori and so on. There are hundreds of examples, some of which may be pouring through your mind now.
People will self-change surnames to make them shorter or simpler or perhaps more pronounceable by the people of the new place where they now live. I have had friends do that.
We have staff members who recall seeing documents handwritten by their ancestors that contain two to three different spellings of the author's name, written by the author him or herself -- as if perhaps they themselves were either not sure or were evolving as they wrote.
Here in the history of Becker County, we have some famous folks with the same issue. I actually don’t know which spelling here is right or wrong or first or last, but in the process of researching events surrounding Mike (Michael) McCarthy, I have seen written in official texts McCarthy, M’Carthy and MaCarthy. When we talk about that one, it sometimes comes up that in the early days of paper-filing there were some seemingly odd rules to librarians' alphabetization. At the time, those rules made sense and solved some issues of dealing with special characters and spellings.
For the most part, it’s little more than curiosity or a musing. But for some people trying to find out information about their family trees, it can become a pretty big hurdle to finding what they are trying to find. I overheard a guest at the museum a few weeks back looking for an ancestor, and both surname and given name appeared differently in various places even though other details lined up, making it difficult to know if that was indeed the correct person. It adds doubt to research, as well as a challenge and learning curve. Sometimes you find a whole new path to follow due to new names showing up.
Some quick advice on family names and how to search for them: Don't be so “correct" in the spelling of the name, as that may exclude valid results.
For fun, see how many ways you can spell your name -- without losing much of its spoken sound.
This column is a regular feature of the Tribune's monthly History page. Kevin Mitchell may be reached at the Becker County Museum by calling 847-2938.