It is widely presumed that James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, knew how to spell his own name, especially since he graduated from the prestigious College of William and Mary, but history shows the spelling of his surname was open to interpretation. Mugs used to promote his 1820 presidential campaign were emblazoned with "Munroe for President."
If the educated couldn't agree on a standard way to spell a name, imagine the variations among ordinary folk. The fact is, there never was and never will be a universally accepted way to spell each name in a country settled by immigrants. Too many factors come into play.
For starters, literacy on a national scale is a rather recent development. We may have had ancestors who could read and write, but not necessarily in English. Immigrants who spoke with heavy accents were often misunderstood, and, when courthouse clerks, census takers and other government employees recorded names, they wrote them the way they heard them. Even old military records aren't exempt. Expect to see a man's surname and given name spelled several different ways in his military or pension file.
No matter what country our ancestors came from, our surnames easily could have undergone many mutations before we claimed them, but, despite overwhelming evidence, some people stubbornly reject that notion.
"One of the most common mistakes researchers make is refusing to check spelling variations," said Mercedes Bleattler, a special collections librarian at the Largo Library. "I've suggested to them that they look for documents under surnames that are similarly spelled, but they let me know that they know how to spell their name."
When did the names get changed? The possibilities are endless. Some names didn't make it through the port of departure or on a ship's passenger list intact, but those alterations probably had more to do with illiteracy than translation, because the record keepers usually spoke the same language. Each time the immigrant made a connection during his voyage, he stood a good chance of having his name misspelled.
The port of entry presented another opportunity. (Ports of entry tend to get a bad rap. Someone was usually around who spoke the immigrant's native tongue and could serve as a translator. Their ability to spell is another matter.)
Quite often the most significant changes took place later on. In an effort to fit in and to symbolically leave their old lives behind, immigrants intentionally "Americanized" their names. Over time, Snidemueller evolved into Mueller and then Miller. MacMurray became simply Murray, and so on.
Early German settlers were among those whose names really got butchered. Ulrich became Ullery, Whoolery and Oolery. Other transformations include Bauers to Bowers, Fuchs to Fox, Hoh to Hay and Schontz to Johns. The corruption of my Feathers surname is so profound I may never determine the original version. Fetter, Fether, Fedder, Vetter and Vatter are among the options.
Even relatively simple names didn't escape distortion. In one ancestor's will, the name alternately appears as Murray, Murry and Mury. It's Murrey on some census rolls. Murray became the preferred spelling around 1900.
Occasionally foreign names were loosely translated into English. Schneider is roughly the German equivalent of the English word "tailor." More than one Schneider (Snider, Snyder) became a Taylor.
My Slovak great-grandfather began life as Jozef Karchnjak. He became a citizen under the name Joseph Karhnak. His will shows Karnak, but his tombstone reads Carnock.
The final version came about when a teacher told his oldest son that Carnock was the correct way to spell the name, but the younger children favored Carnack. Nobody gave an inch. More than 100 years later, some descendants use Carnock while others go by Carnack.
Want to know more about name changes? Log on to http//www.rootsweb.com/ rwguide/lesson8/htm and http://www.ins.usdoj.gov/ graphics/index.htm.
Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Home & Garden, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at rootscolumnaol.com.