Spelling Doesn’t Count! (in Genealogy)

Most of the complaints that I hear from others involve relatives that dispute dates and spellings of names–the latter being a BIGGIE. I still have difficultly convincing new family researchers themselves to accept the fact that their ancestors’ names were spelled many ways. It can be impossible to convince relatives, especially those who have never gone bleary-eyed reading old Irish baptismal records on microfilm, that, no, the family did NOT always spell Kavanagh with a “K” instead of a “C.” 

No family feuds (and I hope no hurt feelings) to report here, but certainly the issue of surname spellings is sometimes an issue.

And it’s not surprising, really, that so many people are wedded to a notion of the one “correct” (and historically immutable) spelling of one’s surname, given how important surname spelling is today. If the clerk at the DMV misspells your name, for example, and you end up with a driver’s license with just one vowel or consonant different from your officially registered name (as found on your birth certificate, say, or perhaps on your passport), that’s going to bother you, right? Well, it would certainly bother me, and I would spend time and money to have that error corrected. A variant surname spelling on a document related to your contributions to the Canada Pension Plan? Yeah, you’d definitely want to look into that, and correct that misspelling just to be safe.

None of which was relevant to, for example, my 3x great-grandparents James Moran (often Morin, sometimes Moren) and his wife Margaret (sometimes Marguerite) Jamieson (or Jameson, or Jamison), who emigrated from Ireland to Huntley township (Carleton Co., Ontario/Upper Canada) around 1819. They didn’t need driver’s licenses; and they didn’t enjoy a “golden years” retirement on a pension plan. And while Margaret Jamieson may have been (at least according to family lore) literate, James Moran could certainly not sign his name. You know, it’s extremely unlikely that an ancestor had a strong attachment to a certain spelling of his surname, if that ancestor never had occasion to personally spell his own name. 

My suspicion is that people didn’t really care about the spelling of their names until they found themselves positioned as so many points on a modern information grid, with faceless bureaucrats making decisions about licenses and pensions and so on. Which development roughly corresponds to the rise of the presumption (if not the reality) of universal literacy, and literacy is also of course an important factor too. You can’t “misspell” your name, or correct someone else’s “misspelling,” if you don’t know how to spell in the first place. But anyway, and to admittedly vastly oversimplify for the purposes of illustration, it didn’t matter how the parish priest or the local magistrate spelled your name, when you lived in a small “face-to-face” community in Huntley township where everyone of course knew who you were and who the priest or magistrate meant when they recorded your name. It was only when your children and grandchildren had to start sending proofs of documentation to Toronto or Ottawa (for licenses and pensions and so forth) that they started worrying about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, which is when a standardized spelling of your surname started to appear.

Probably most of my not-so-distant (within the past two hundred years or so) ancestors lived out their entire lives unburdened by the rules of correct spelling. They themselves never actually spelled out their own names: the spelling of their names was only ever rendered by parish priests and census enumerators. For these folks, “variant” surname spellings were not so much the exception as the rule (which of course tended to multiply the possibilities of variation). Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on the educational levels (which is to say, basically, socioeconomic status) of your ancestors, but certainly you should not expect surname standardization until at least the last quarter of the nineteenth century, if not a generation or two later.