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Finding Names


Before doing research in old records, it is a good idea to become familiar with all the variants in letter formation. Many errors are made by people who are not familiar with the handwriting styles of the colonial and pioneer periods in our country.

There are some very common pitfalls that I can comment on -- even without illustration. The letters "s" and "f" are often confused. Both the capital and lower case versions of these two letters look the same in the handwriting of some of our ancestors.

In the colonial period you will find that a double "s" is written as though it were an "fs" (Melifsa for Melissa).

Vowels are often hard to distinguish, too. You may need to try exchanging the vowel for every other vowel.

And, in the case of birth and death certificates, the doctor's handwriting may have simply been illegible.


Look for ALL types of spellings when you search records. Keep in mind that years ago, names were often spelled phonetically, embedding the person's accent.

Given names were sometimes abbreviated using superscripts (Danl for Daniel).

There was a time when the letters u and v were interchangeable.

Many times the spelling changed (Hawley to Holley).

Sometimes names are spelled so oddly that you may need to browse through the records.

Maiden Names

Given Naming Patterns in England, 1700-1875

Younger children would be named after earlier ancestors, but the pattern in their case was more varied.
One variation from the above was for the eldest son to be named after the mother's father and the eldest daughter after the father's mother. In this case the second son would be named after the father's father and the second daughter after the mother's mother. Occasionally the second son and daughter would be named after the father and mother instead of the third son and daughter. Another variation was to name the third daughter after one of the great-grandmothers instead of after the mother. In such a case, the fourth daughter would usually be named after the mother.


Another possible pitfall in looking for our ancestors is not being familiar with all the various nicknames that might have been used for a particular given name. One of my ancestors was named Mary Brandon. It wasn't until I learned that Polly was a nickname for Mary that I finally found her on the 1850 census in her father's household as Polly Brandon. Another nickname for Mary is Molly and another one is Mae. If you have an ancestor listed somewhere as Molly, you need to look for her as Mary too. Or, if you know your ancestor was Mary, be sure to check for the nicknames Molly, Polly and Mae. This principle applies to all names. Also, be sure to realize that some nicknames apply to more than one given name. -- Bob Brandon

Page content reviewed and/or updated by the Advisory Board 2022 Dec

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