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"Correct" name spelling not relevant until 20th Century

Concern with spelling names "correctly" is a modern day phenomenon, largely associated with the large number of surnames that have to be kept straight for official records. Before the 20th century there was little concern for how a name was spelled, often with different spellings used in one document. Usually legal documents were written by a clerk and the spelling and handwriting will be his alone. Writing was not something that most people did on a regular basis and there were many people who could read, but who could not write. Case in point - a Civil War soldier was asked how his name was spelled and he replied that he did not know as he was not a scholar. Usually clerks wrote down the name without question as they understood it. And if they were of a different nationality than the name owner, the result could be spelled quite differently.

Censuses can contain a different variety of spellings, especially since information for the census was often taken from a neighbor or a young child in the home. (See more about census data in an article found by M. D. Monk and transcribed at the bottom of the page.)

Ships records are instructive as lists for the same ship made up at different ports can almost look like a different group of people depending on whether the port was English, German, West Indian or?

Old tombstones are not even reliable as the spelling often depended on the nationality of the stonecutter.

Sometimes a spelling indicating a different nationality "stuck." For example, a will might be written by a German clerk for an English family. The family then had an "official" document as a sample of their surname and members of the family would practice writing the name that way, and it would become the "official" spelling of their name.

A different effect came from the Revolutionary War when people carrying documents with names spelled in a way that indicated a nationality other than English would be stopped and questioned, but those whose names looked English could pass anywhere. Many, many names were anglicized during this period.

One of the greatest problems for genealogists is differences in name spelling. For instance Hannah Thornborough Woodward had relatives with names shown as Thornbrough, Thornburg, Thornbrugh, Thornbury, Thornberry and her own marriage record was as Anna Tarneberry as she was married in a Swedish church.

While we have used Woodward and Thornbrough examples in this text, if you are having trouble researching any family name in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, we think you will find many helpful hints and some useful web sites on this page.

Woodward and Thornbrough Names (and their many variations)

Traditionally, the surname Woodward(for the families documented on these pages) began to appear in the records of Chester County, Pennsylvania in the year 1687 when Richard Woodward purchased a tract of land in Thornbury Township from John Simcock who had purchased a large tract from William Penn before they left England. (Some genealogies try to place the Thornbrough family as arriving in, and naming, Thornbury Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania, but it was actually named before they arrived. It was named in 1687 for Thornbury town in Gloucestershire, England, by George Pierce, whose wife was a native of Thornbury (from History of Chester County).)

The name Woodward originated in England, being very common there. There is an absolutely fascinating Web Site set up by a descendant of Robert Woodward. She tells a story about her search for the Woodward Knight on her page, as well as more information on the origin of the name. Much as we would like to have blue blood running rich in our veins, it must be considered that the name Woodward was rampant in England and also came from those many, many people early appointed as "wardens of the woods". These were people employed as guardians of private timber stands and game preserves. There is even an amusing Woodward crest in County Kent showing three grasshoppers on the traditional shield. The name Richard is also a traditional English given name so there are many, many Richard Woodwards and quite a few came to America. The surname of Richard Woodward's wife Jane is currently not proven. Jane was also a very, very common English name and there are several Richard and Jane Woodward marriages in England around the right time but there is currently no way of identifying which one could be the correct couple. What is needed is a will of Jane's father in England, naming her as wife of Richard Woodward of Chester County, Pennsylvania.

There is a Richard Woodward who came early to Massachusetts and some genealogies have cheerfully mixed that family in with the Chester County, Pennsylvania, Woodwards. And small wonder: because biblical names were almost universally used for children in those times there was an early Abraham in that family too.

The variations of the name Woodward found in the 1790 census include Wodword, Woodard, Woodards, Woodart, Wooddart, Wooderd, Woodjard, Woodword. There are 399 families listed with 1,907 individuals accounted for. We are very, very fortunate that our Woodwards are well documented in Quaker records or there would be no hope of unscrambling the families in America. When researching the Woodward family it is well to keep all these variations in mind as we could not locate the marriage of our own ancestor John Woodward in Tennessee until cousin William Wallace went there and found him under "John Woodert."

Usefulness of Given Names

While the many similar names can be confusing, they can be helpful too. Hints to relationships can often be found in matching family given names since clear up through the 19th century it was customary to name children for esteemed relatives and/or famous people of the time. For example, we were able to place John Woodward of Wayne County, Indiana, into the family of Abraham Woodward because the first hint that he belonged there was the names of three of his children: Aaron, Jane, and Eliza. They were named for Aaron, Jane, and Eliza, children of Abraham Woodward and siblings of John Woodward. Other proofs surfaced, of course, but this was the first clue we were on the right track.

Roger Ball, one of the early settlers of Chester County, Pennsylvania, had a bag of gold he kept in his house but thought himself too poor to pay county tax. He wrote:
"Eight children small
My own I call
Scarce one can earn their bread
So you may guess
I'm in distress
To get them clothed and fed"

This did not mean that children were not wanted and appreciated. They were an asset to a family as an extra pair of hands to help with the endless round of work that was necessary for survival. And the naming of a child was serious business! Myra Vanderpool Gormley wrote in Colonial Homes (Feb 1996, p. 24) "Among Quakers in Colonial Pennsylvania and Delaware, babies went through a ritual called nomination. An infant's name was carefully selected by the parents, certified by friends, witnessed by neighbors, and then entered in the register of the meeting. First-born children were named after grandparents, honoring maternal and paternal lines evenly, often with an eldest son named after his mother's father and an eldest daughter after her father's mother. While this practice was not universal among Quaker families, it was common in the Delaware Valley. Many names came from the Bible, with favorites for boys being John, Joseph, Samuel, Thomas, William, and George; and for girls, Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Anne/Anna/Hannah, and Esther/Hester. Also popular among the Quakers was Phebe, which rarely appeared in New England or the South. They also favored the names Patience, Grace, Mercy, and Chastity..." these types of naming patterns are not unique to the Quakers and similar patterns can be found, for instance Welsh naming patterns are similar and German names had patterns as well.

Abraham & Hannah Thornbrough Woodward chose a Biblical name for their first son, Eli. A possible reason for the choice is given in Abraham's biography. They did honor Abraham's father & mother with a son William and a daughter Eliza. Neither set of grandparents was honored nor were Hannah's parents. This is too bad as it would have helped correctly place Hannah in the Thornbrough family.

The tradition of naming children for relatives existed pretty well into the early twentieth century. It is instructive to follow the name Eliza through the family. While Eliza was often a nickname for Elizabeth (see bottom page for many more), in this family it is pretty consistently carried through as Eliza. James Hunt came to America about the same time as William Penn, as a widower with two tiny daughters Mary and Eliza. The name of James Hunt's wife is given in Pennsylvania land records as "Elizer" so was no doubt also Eliza. Mary Hunt married Abraham Marshall. The birth of their oldest daughter is recorded at Darby Monthly Meeting in Chester County, Pennsylvania, "Elizah Marshall Daughter of Abraham Marshall and Mary his wife, born 2nd day of the 10th month 1705." Eliza Marhshall was thus named for Mary's sister and perhaps also her mother. Eliza Marshall married William Woodward and their son Abraham in turn named a daughter Eliza after his mother. Abraham's son John Woodward named a daughter Eliza as did Susannah Woodward Frazier. It would be interesting to find a present day Eliza somewhere in the family!

Because of the practice of naming children after relatives, the maiden name of a wife can sometimes be deduced. An example is Patrick Beard and wife Hannah who named (1)a son Abraham, after Hannah's father, as the name does not appear in Patrick's family, and (2) a son Woodward Beard, thus leading to the conclusion that Hannah's maiden name was probably Woodward. It is not proof positive as a child might be named after a neighbor, a good friend, or a respected member of the community. We know that John Woodward and Patrick Beard were lifelong friends and neighbors and the names may mean no more than that.

Often grandparents were honored: Jesse and Rhoda Morgan Woodward named a son Millikan Woodward after Jesse's mother Elizabeth Millikan Woodward as well as naming a son Morgan. Present day descendant of William and Alice Woodward Dean, William Dean Wallace, carries on the tradition. One of his relatives William Hardeway Lock Dean got a double dose with two maiden names embedded.

Sometimes a child may be named for a national hero or a president and an embedded surname has no relationship to the family: for instance Andrew Jackson Woodward, son of Samuel and Abigail Shelley Woodward was born in 1814 and named after Andrew Jackson who became famous during the War of 1812.

And, when you are doing your research, don't forget to look for variations of given names as well as surnames. For example:
62 variations of the name Elizabeth!
Dear ELIZABETH in all her various 62 COSTUMES . . .
Elizabeth: Elizabeth Bithia Elizebeth Bethia Lizzy Liza Betty Lisa Bee Leasa Lisbeth Bessey Elisa Elisha Elisabeth Elisebeth Bette Libby Beth Liz Beatrix Beatrice Bett Bethany Bethanie Bethia Lilibet Lillibeth Betsey Lillibet Betsy Lillibett Betts Lizbeth Lisbeth Eliza Elisha Bess Alisa Betty Bea Libby Bessie Bitzen Beth Lynn Beth Lynne Bethlynn or Bethlynne Dicey [probably a childish miss pronunciation] Lillias Lilias Lillian Lillia Lilia Lily Lilly Liba Elspeth Lizzie Lit Bathia Elspet Besse

Now you know why you cannot find that Elizabeth you've been looking for FOREVER !!! Unfortunately sites that allow for soundexing in searches for surnames do not then look for alternate given names so remember that as well.

Web sites about names,naming patterns and spelling

Surnames & Naming patterns; The Importance of Given Names; Nicknames and Naming Traditions; and Colonial Naming Customs (you can ignore the request to download an item on this one and still read the text). While one refers to Scottish ancestry, it also notes that the patterns held through most of Western Europe. These sites should be of tremendous help if you have a particularly sticky research problem. There is a good site on 18th Century PA German Nicknames that includes the english version of german given names which is quite helpful when names were commonly anglicized.

A good web site about spelling, could be very helpful. It is about German spelling but remember that many times census takers and stonecutters (tombstones) were German and used their own forms of spelling. has a good article on spelling problems including cases where ancestors changed their own names. Another helpful site gives old style abreviations of proper names. This one is especially useful as it gives handwriting samples showing how old style letters were formed. Many, many errors are found in modern transcriptions of old original documents because the transcriber made mistakes in understanding the letters.

1900 Census example of problems when extracting data

As you know, indices extracted from historical records can never be perfect due to problems with the original documents. In the case of the 1900 census, here is a list of different issues, each compounding inaccuracies in extracting "true" names, especially when the individuals are immigrants with non-Anglo-Saxon surnames:

1) The census takers were often unskilled, their only qualifications being locals who could write. They transliterated foreign names as best they could, especially when the person giving the information had a heavy accent or was not schooled in English speech nor spelling. When they recorded a name, they often augmented the already myriad alternate spellings concocted by immigration officials at Ellis Island, for example. Many times when a family in an apartment building was not at home, rather than returning later, they queried neighbors for the absent family's household information.

2) The census takers had no handwriting standards and recorded names in various individualized old-fashioned cursive. Often, subsequent entries overwrote the descending characters from the names above. Although we employed paleographic experts to tackle difficult cases, they couldn't review all 25 million head-of-household (and stray) names. In addition, the officials who counted the individuals tended to write family enumeration data over the head-of-household names, obscuring portions of the name.

3) The government transported and stored the original census pages under a variety of conditions leading to highly variable quality. Some pages, especially the first and last several in a bundle, were subject to excessive wear and tear. Many bundles suffered water damage, especially at the bottoms of the pages. Some ink in the pens that were used (again, no standards) either faded or ran, and sometimes names from one side of the page bled through to the opposite side. Rips and tears were repaired using cellophane tape, which discolored to the point of turning black over the decades.

4) Marginally skilled technicians photographed the pages in the 1940's at the dawn of microfilm technology. They lit a substantial percentage of the 1.8 million pages unevenly and poorly, sometimes jostling the camera when they were shooting. Common lighting defects manifest as one or more dark corners, or an underexposed border around an overexposed interior. Variability in chemical development of the master microfilms, as well as during the duplication process, compounded any lighting problems. We've taken many steps to generate the best images and index we could given the challenges. The very latest technology was utilized to extract names and other data from hard-to-read images. Although we are very pleased with the results, it's easy to see why it's inevitable that a certain percentage of names were either corrupted or lost due to items (1) - (4) above.

Here are two examples to illustrate some of the above points: The name "Rubin Estrin" ... was heard and transcribed by the census enumerator as "Rubin Estren," ... . The name "Charles Gittleson" ... was handwriten poorly and keyed as "Charles Gettllin," ... . As these examples point out, name extraction and lookup is an inexact science, bordering on art. When a primary search fails, genealogical researchers must try alternate spellings and/or blank, initial or abbreviated first names. As a last resort, a researcher must identify a location associated with a name, and then browse the corresponding enumeration district page by page until the sought after name is found.

M. D. Monk did not provide a reference with this article but I believe it is from

Web Master's comment: In searching many, many census records I have often noted that while the census taker was a male, the handwriting is often unmistakably feminine. This leads me to believe that the census taker's field notes were likely transcribed by his wife, such transcription leading again to a whole other set of errors!