St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

What's in a family name? Plenty of spellings

Published September 9, 2004

Joshua Yost doesn't appear on the index to the 1880 online census. I know he's on the microfilmed version of the original census roll, so I thought he'd pop right up when I entered his name in the electronic version at But no matter what variation of the surname I plugged into the search box, Yost was a no-show.

Determined not to let a Web site outsmart me, I entered his wife's given name, along with the state and county, figuring there couldn't be that many women named Indiana. (There are eight, actually). I found the couple under the name West. The surname is quite clear on the original census roll, so the person who transcribed the records either didn't think Yost was spelled correctly or decided to put his own spin on it.

In any case, this anecdote illustrates the peril of relying on the accuracy of electronic census records and why it's imperative to consider virtually every conceivable way a surname may be spelled while researching your roots.

All researchers should start with the premise that there never was, and isn't now, a universally correct way to spell any surname. Smith is just as legitimate as Smyth or Smythe. Cunningham may equate to Conyngham. Mills and Mylls and Miles may be used synonymously. Widespread literacy is a relatively recent development. And even the spelling of simple surnames may evolve over time.

Names got changed or shortened for the sake of convenience when immigrants arrived in this country, because the immigrant didn't know how to spell his name or because the worker at the port spelled it phonetically. Immigrants also changed their names to Americanize them. Sometimes the surname spelling changed because of all these reasons.

In 1800, Andrej Karchnak lived in what is now Slovakia. His son's name was Andrej Karchnjak. His grandson, born in 1838, was named Jozef Karnyak. His great-grandson, Jozef Karnyak immigrated to the United States in 1890. A decade later, the immigrant filed citizenship papers under the name Joseph Karchnak. He married that same year under the surname Karchniak. His 1951 death certificate says Joseph Carnack. His sons couldn't agree on the way to spell the surname, so side-by-side tombstones read Carnock and Carnack.

Italian names took some interesting turns. Consider three brothers who emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s. One shortened his surname from Zaccagnino to Zack. The others didn't.

Early German immigrants were among those whose surnames underwent many strange incarnations. Pronouncing the Ulrich name with the guttural sounds common to the German language must have been difficult for their English-speaking neighbors. That name quickly morphed into Ullery and Ulery and became Whoolery and Oolery on some census rolls. Though it was no trouble to say Eicher, spelling it was another matter, with Iker being a favorite.

The Germans were particularly fond of Americanizing their names. Snidemueller became Mueller and then Miller. Schneider is a rough equivalent of the English word tailor, a common occupation. A man named Schneider in Germany became Tailor or Taylor in America. Schantz/Schontz became Johns, Hoeh switched to Hay, Fuchs to Fox and Huber to Hoover.

Name changes like this can really throw people off by making it appear as if the original immigrant came from another part of the world. Some Springers started out as Bruners, Brooks may have originally been Brucks and Dewes may have morphed into Davis. Families who spelled their surname Schelly were probably of German extraction, while those who used Shelley or Shelly were probably Irish or English.

Since surnames may be spelled differently on each census roll and legal documents, it's important to acquire as much documentation as possible to ensure you're tracking the right family.

-- Read past Donna Murray Allen columns online at Type "Donna Murray Allen" in the search box. You can write to Allen c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at Her Web site: includes information on classes and lectures. Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.