Your Surname’s Spelling? Total Accident

Your surname’s spelling was never carved in stone. 

This is something that most people who’ve been digging through original genealogical sources already know, but I’ve found myself having a conversation about this with a bunch of interested family members and friends lately, so I thought I would write a post about this. 

More than likely, your name is spelled the way it is because of a fluke. That’s right. the spelling of your name probably wasn’t standardized until the 20th century. If you think you’re the “Smyths” with a “y” or the “Brownes” with an “e” then think again. You may very well be as closely related as 2nd cousins with people who spell your last name entirely differently than you do! Bear with me here.

(Non)Standardized Spelling of Surnames

A few months back I was with a friend at the driver’s license office. He had to show documentation for his license and the clerk noticed that his name was spelled differently on his social security card than on his birth certificate. She warned him that he’d better get that fixed right away because it could mess with his social security, taxes, credit scores and background checks. Needless to say, he went to the social security office and made the change to the official spelling of his first name. Otherwise his whole life could get screwed up, right?

In the nineteenth century, nobody had this problem. First of all, what social security? What social safety nets? There was no real reason to require a standard spelling of a name.

Further, a lot of people didn’t read and write and so when they had to write their name – which wasn’t often – they did the best they could. If they went for years between writing their names, the spellings they chose could easily change. Not to mention that the English language didn’t really have standardized spelling yet. (Figures as recent as Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie wanted to simplify English language spelling because it is just too darn hodgepodge.)

Sometimes people didn’t write their own names at all. Sometimes their names were written by census takers or other public officials who did they best that they could with the spelling of unusual (and not-so-unusual) names. Check it out:

John P Gravett (Gravitt) in 1870 US Federal Census, an example of how a surname's spelling changes over time
John P. “Gravett,” 1870 U.S. Federal Census
John Priestly Gravitt in 1880 Federal Census (Spelled Gravet); an example of how a surname's spelling changes over time
“Jas P Gravet” in the 1880 US Federal Census. Same guy. Different first name and surname.
Gravitt in 1900 US Census
Today’s surname spelling, Gravitt, in the 1900 US Census

Same guy, same family, three different censuses, three different spellings of their last name. Today, we use the “Gravitt” spelling but we are more than likely related to Gravetts, Gravits, Gravets, Gravettes, Gravots, and more as different families descended from the same ancestors changed the spelling of the name down through the years. It really is just a fluke that we ended up sticking with “Gravitt.”

And funny enough, I found out one Cherokee County Oral History Day that our pronunciation, “Graaav-it” with a long a is a total fluke, too. The Gravitt family one county over in Forsyth, spell the name the same, but pronounced it “Grave-it.”

The same thing happened with first names. Jennet Cowen West and her daughter Edith West lived together in 1888. Each had a son named Pascal. But Jennet spelled her son’s first name “Paskill” while Edith spelled her son’s name “Paschal.” Census records, land records and civil war pensions show the first Pascal spelled almost every possible way.

Finding your Surname’s Spelling in Original Sources

This is not to say that your relatives didn’t know how to spell their names or didn’t have a preference. One thing to remember when looking at primary source research is that more often than not these records were written by people who were not your relative. Census takers, county clerks, and other assorted bureaucrats often wrote your relative’s name down for them. That’s why it’s always so amazing to find something written by the actual person you are researching. You can get that info straight from the horse’s mouth, for once.

Signature of John Berry Duncan on his Civil War Pension Application
John Berry Duncan’s Signature, 1910

This is my 3rd Great-Grandfather John Berry Duncan’s signature in 1910, when he was 88-years-old. You can see he forgot the initial “n.” That doesn’t mean our name is really “Ducan.” Nah, it’s just that spelling wasn’t as important back in the day. Nobody was going to deny your credit card or kick back your university enrollment because you forgot a letter here or there.

I hope this helps! (I especially hope this helps my friends who maintain that they can’t be related to anybody with the last name “Stevens”  because their last name has always been spelled “Stephens.” Come on, y’all.)

Happy detecting!


11 thoughts on “Your Surname’s Spelling? Total Accident”

  1. This is so true, and I did not realize how much so until I started researching my family history. I have a Russian name, beginning with a “W” and ending in a “Y”. But I no longer have any idea how it should be spelled: “W” or “V”; “Y” or “I” at the end? Knowing this just means I have to toss the net a lot further when looking for someone!

    • Right? It’s something you just wouldn’t think about unless you’ve been actually looking at sources. But then when you realize that people didn’t really NEED a standardized spelling (and that many bureaucrats just tried to spell names phonetically), it all makes perfect sense! I sort of like the more challenging names because there’s always something new to try. I also have some very common names like “Hill” and “West” and those are difficult in their own right because they are so common and so difficult to google!

  2. Oh good, I’m glad you have found that, too. I have found it interesting how often I end up talking about this with non-genealogists, so I thought I would post! I know I’m preaching to the choir of you experienced family history researchers. 🙂

  3. Interesting, Jennifer. I knew my great great grandfather came to NYC in 1860’s but I couldn’t find him in the 1870 census. I mucked around and finally found him listed in the ’70 census as Kaden. I can imagine my illiterate ggf pronouncing his name as you might in Ireland and the census taker recording it as such. Who knows how many times that might have happened in my family’s history. In this case it was corrected; other times it may not have been.
    P.S. Thanks for the Artists Without Walls mention. Thoughtful.

    • Charles, thank you for stopping by here. You’ve made a wonderful blog over at and everybody needs to check it out!

      I have a funny Irish story, too! My 4th great-grandmother was “Cowen” but the name was eventually spelled as “Coan” and “Cohen.” I can only imagine they must have pronounced it that way in their strong accent. At one point, I saw someone looking for my family online speculating that these “Cohens” must have been Jewish. (Being from Ireland in 1820, I seriously doubt it!) Oh the difference a little spelling can make!

  4. Hi, this is an excellent discussion. I have a question that I hope someone can answer. Does anyone know if name spellings were more formalised amongst the aristocracy / minor royals or the intelligentsia over the centuries?

    Thanks for any help you can provide.

    Cheers – Heidi

  5. Exactly right about spelling….My great grandfather’s name is George Berry Duncan & his son is George W Duncan….showing 3 different spellings of middle name…Weston, Watson & Walston. So Confusing.


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