Playing with Names to Find Results


There are more databases online for genealogical research than ever before. Indexing projects are enormous undertakings, and I’m grateful for the massive investments of time and resources that have made them possible.

We know that the spelling of names were often not standardized generations ago, so we know that we should check records for name variations. Soundex searches can be a big help in this regard, but there are some exceptions. For example, ‘Hewson’ and ‘Hewston’ are two names for the same family, but the ‘t’ in the latter creates a different Soundex code, so both should be searched.

Despite the best efforts, handwritten names and places from old records often mutate on their way to an indexed record. An ‘S’ might turn into a ‘G,’ ‘Hewson’ becomes ‘Hudson,’ ‘Rohr’ becomes ‘Bohr’ or ‘Robe’ or ‘Rohn’ or ‘Kohn,’ and so on. The problem in these cases is that even a Soundex-based search of an index will fail you, since in each of these examples, the real name’s Soundex code and the indexed name’s Soundex code are totally different. Soundex will group names such as ‘Hewston’ and ‘Houston’, but ‘Bohr’ and ‘Rohn’ are in completely different categories.

Be creative with how a name might have been read by an indexer. Like in the examples above, what might ‘Rohr’ look like? A capital ‘R’ could be hard to decipher properly if it was written in fancy cursive or if the ink has faded unevenly. Maybe it looked like a ‘K,’ ‘P,’ or ‘B’ and was indexed as such. A lower-case ‘r’ could look like an ‘n.’

It’s a good idea to keep track of the different name variations you find. the list will help you search records more effectively.

Wildcard searches are a powerful tool. Search engines, such as the one behind searches on Ancestry.com, often support the ‘*’ and ‘?’ wildcards. The asterisk stands for any number of characters or letters, so searching ‘Roh*’ will find ‘Rohr,’ ‘Rohn,’ ‘Rohrer,’ and so on; ‘Hew*’ will return ‘Hewson,’ ‘Hewston,’ etc. Soundex won’t do that by itself. The question mark stands for exactly one character or letter, so ‘Roh?’ will return ‘Rohn’ as well as ‘Rohr.’

As a last resort, if you just can’t find the person by name, is to try searching for all people fitting an age, birthplace, or whatever parameters you know, and seeing if you can recognize your relative from the results. You might find a name variation you would have never imagined!

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