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    Home Columns

    Watching for Name Changes

    "Mary, watch for the name changes of your ancestors," a friend remarked when I discussed my research with her. I was frustrated over not finding some members of my family line.

    "Name changes?" I asked.

    "Yes, many of the immigrants' names were changed once they came to this country. There were many reasons for this, but this often makes it difficult for us to find our ancestors."

    So as I searched for ancestors and reached stonewalls, places where I couldn't trace them any further, I remembered what Margaret said and realized for various reasons we'll find changes in spelling and in pronunciation. Sometimes the name will be so changed we'll not recognize it without further help.

    Why Do Names Change?

    • Language barriers - Often the person(s) taking down the information about the immigrant arriving in this country didn't speak the same language. Or someone taking a census didn't understand.

    • Couldn't read and spell in English - Some languages might have different names and sounds for the letters so were written much differently in America. For instance my Heisterbach ancestors from Germany became Oysterbach, then Oysterbank when they landed in New York City in 1710. Over the years, this was shortened to O' Banks, then O. Banks, and finally simply Banks when it became my grandmother's surname. It took me some diligent searching to trace her lineage back to its German origins when we thought for years she was English.

    • Couldn't read or write - Some people couldn't read nor write so might not know how to make the letters to their name. These are people who simply signed legal papers with an X. Perhaps the person taking down the data wasn't well educated either. Phonetic spellings of names are very common.

    • No English translation - Some names had no English translation because the letters were made very differently in the immigrant's language. Then the translator simply converted the sounds as best they could to the English language.

    • Carelessness in record keeping - Some records may have been written in a hurry or by someone who didn't really care. So an "a" may have looked like an "o" or an "e" like an "l", etc.

    • Couldn't read handwriting - Some handwriting was illegible in initial records or when a person wrote their own name. So the names got copied as well as they could.

    • When looking for my Grandfather Reuben Place's family in a census record, I came across them listed as Plum. This was a record typed from an original census.

      I contacted the person who did the transcribing and, while he didn't remember the exact name, he said that sometimes the handwriting had been difficult to decipher. I've also seen Place written as Plas or Plass.

    • Desire to change - Some people desired to change their names, not necessarily because they were hiding from anyone or the law (and sometimes they were). But they simply wanted to use a name that was easier to pronounce or write in the new country.

      My grandfather Burton Coon changed his surname from Coons to the singular. "I'm one Coon, not many," he announced, according to my mom. So he dropped the "s."

    • Name changes evolve - Some changes seem to evolve with names after years of living in another country, especially where a different language is predominant. Originally my grandfather Coon's ancestors' name was Kuhns when they came from Germany to America. Over the years it had been Anglicized to Coons in some families.

      With the Place name, according to one reference (I haven't found personal connections yet), this name originally was LaPlace and the French family migrated to England after William the Conquerer took over that country. Over the years in England, the "La" was dropped.

    Looking for Changes

    So when you can't find your ancestors' names in various records, speculate on other spellings for that name. Some will be way off and it's only by continued research or genealogists' luck that you find them. But don't give up.

    • Discuss with other researchers
    • Send out queries on an Internet list and see if there are any other known spellings
    • Research different spellings for that name

    Have fun in the fascinating and sometimes frustrating search for your ancestors.

    Copyright © 2003 Mary Emma Allen

    Mary Emma Allen has been searching for her ancestors for many years. She sometimes reaches a dead end, but enjoys the journey and the many new "cousins" she meets. Visit her web site at

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ

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