1 Try dif­fer­ent spellings

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - BRICK WALLS -

This may seem ob­vi­ous, but it is still my first go-to tech­nique for find­ing some­one ‘miss­ing’ from records. One of my an­ces­tors mar­ried a French­man, and I’ve not found his sur­name spelt the same on any of­fi­cial doc­u­ment. Even com­mon names can be mis­tran­scribed if the hand­writ­ing is tricky to read (‘James’ in­stead of ‘Jones’), or mis­spelt if the per­son writ­ing it down mis­heard what was said. We have fea­tured not one, but two cases in the mag­a­zine of a baby Henry (‘enry) be­ing recorded as ‘Emily’! There are a few ways to tackle this ob­sta­cle. One is to use ‘wild­cards’ in your re­search. This is when you sub­sti­tute a let­ter or let­ters with an * or ? to widen the search. The as­ter­isk re­places any num­ber of let­ters, so if you write ‘Shep*rd’ it will look for ‘Shep­herd’ or ‘Shep­ard’, whereas ? just re­places one let­ter, for ex­am­ple ‘S?mes’ will look for ‘Simes’, ‘Symes’ or ‘Somes’ – but it won’t in­clude ‘Soames’. The main sub­scrip­tion sites have built ‘fuzzy’ search­ing into their stan­dard search al­go­rithms, so it is not nec­es­sary to use wild­cards. Where they come in handy is when you feel the name you are search­ing for is the least re­li­able piece of in­for­ma­tion you have. In this in­stance wild­cards stop the web­site’s search en­gine from pri­ori­tis­ing a spell­ing that may in fact be wrong. They are also use­ful if you have an an­ces­tor with an un­usual or for­eign name that is fre­quently mis­tran­scribed.

An­other way to com­bat a sus­pected mis­spelt sur­name is to search with­out the name al­to­gether. Most sites al­low you to search us­ing just a first name along with the names of other peo­ple in the fam­ily ( thege­neal­o­gist.co.uk is par­tic­u­larly good for this). To re­duce re­sults, you may need to in­clude where you ex­pect to find them. Oc­cu­pa­tion can also help to nar­row down re­sults, although an­ces­try.co.uk has not in­dexed oc­cu­pa­tion for all of its cen­suses.

I’ve also heard of re­searchers find­ing peo­ple by say­ing the sur­name in the right re­gional ac­cent and ex­per­i­ment­ing with spellings! If some­one moved from Scot­land to Nor­folk and had to say their name to an enu­mer­a­tor with­out know­ing how to spell it, it could have been writ­ten down in all sorts of ways. The enu­mer­a­tor will have been busy, and won’t have ex­pected his scrawl to be­come a key part of your fam­ily his­tory puz­zle.

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