52 Ancestors,
in 52 Weeks
Week 41:
Changes

Name Changes

Several of my ancestors have surnames that change over time. Often, the name change was to conform to American characteristics. The surname changes I have documented are, for the most part, taking a German pronunciation and phonetically adapting it to American-English. There are a few methods that can be employed to find records of the variant spellings of surnames. Most search systems allow the use of so-called wildcards, usually the asterisk (*) and the question mark (?). Many indexed document databases, particularly genealogical and library systems, support the more sophisticated Soundex Code for surname searches.

Soundex

I have successfully used the Soundex Code to search indexed documents and databases for surnames that have changed spelling over time. The Soundex Code is a 4 character alphanumeric, it consists of one letter and three numbers. The characters represent the first letter plus, up to 3 consonants of the surname. The table at right defines the number associated with the consonants. Notice that H, W, and Y are not included and will be ignored in the surname unless they are the first letter. If the surname has few consonants then the code is filled out with zeroes. [1, 2]

Soundex Code
1 B F P V
2 C G J K Q S X Z
3 D T
4 L
5 M N
6 R

These rules apply as well:

  • Treat double letters as singles, in other words, use one number for consecutive consonants that are the same.
  • Except for 0 (Zero), there should never be two of the same number next to each other in a Soundex Code, including if the second consonant has the same as the first letter.
  • Soundex Codes are always 4 characters, this means for longer surnames some consonants will be ignored.
  • Surnames with prefixes Mc or Mac are considered part of the surname. However, prefixes such as Van, De, La etc. should be considered both ways.

Schaffer – Shaver

My Shaver ancestor arrived in America as Andrew Schaffer on the brig “Lydia” in 1785. The name change to Shaver occurred at least by 1813 when his son, my 4th great grandfather, Peter Shaver enlisted in the War of 1812. [3, 4] Using the Soundex Code for this surname has helped me find military and death records. BTW, the German surname Schaffer is derived from the word for shepherd.

Schaffer is S160: It begins with an S, ignore c because it has the same code# as S (2), ignore h and a, ff = 1, ignore e, r = 6, and add a final 0 to complete the 4 character code. For Shaver it is also S160. This means, when searching for my Shaffer/Shaver ancestors I can use the Soundex Code to find many of the spelling variants, like Shaffer and Sheaver.

Haller or Holler

My Holler ancestor arrived on the ship “Samuel” in 1733. [5] The name did not so much change form to Holler as it was, and still is, used interchangeably as either Haller or Holler. To this day the family reunion is Haller/Holler and semi-regularly held in Shenandoah County, VA. Fortunately, both Haller and Holler are H460 in the Soundex. And, that also covers the occasional Heller and Hawler spellings!

Sivey and Leiby

I have a brick wall ancestor named Mathias Sivey, 1740-1805. [6] While researching his property deeds I noticed a transcription for his name as Levy. That got me thinking how old-time cursive writings’ capital letter S looks a lot like capital letter L, and vice-versa. I then began using the Soundex L100 (in addition to S100 for Sivey) and found many records for a Mathias Leiby, living in the right locations, with family ties that match my Mathias Sivey. After that I checked my DNA matches and found MANY with an ancestor named Friederich Leiby. I have not yet found definitive proof to connect Mathias Sivey to Friederich Leiby, but the evidence is suggestive. Also, S100 and L100 cover many of the variations I have found, such as Leibi, Sivy and Sevy.

Laferre to LaFara

I wrote a post back in 2019 about using the Soundex Code for my own surname to find records for the many variant spellings. [7] L160 covers the earliest spelling, Laferre, and the current one, LaFara. Plus, it also catches many in between: Lafaree, Lafferrey, Laffer, Lafaree, Leferey, Lefary, Lefary, Lafferry, Leffry AND Lafary! Wildcards alone could find these, but it also ginds MANY more surnames that I do not care to sort through. Furthermore, this is a case when I needed to consider that the beginning letters of my surname often sound like a prefix. Therefore, searching with Soundex F600 helped me find the 1850 census that has my 3rd great grandfather listed as John Lee Ferry. [8] This code eliminated any surnames beginning with F that had a consonant (other then H, W, Y) after the R.

These are many of the surnames in my family tree

Conclusion

Despite surnames changing over time, there are effective methods to search records and find the variant spellings. Using the wildcard method, L?f* gives me every result with a surname starting with Laf, Lef, Lif, Lof, etc. On the other hand, when you are certain of the first letter and a couple of consonants, then Soundex is a good choice. Give it a try and let me know if you make a new discovery.

SOURCES:

  1. Webpage, National Archives: Soundex; https://www.archives.gov/research/census/soundex
  2. Webpage, Wikipedia: Soundex; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soundex
  3. Entry for Andrew Schaffer, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Year: 1785; Page: 13; editor: Filby, P. William, pub: Gale Research, Farmington Hills, MI, USA 2012. Online at Ancestry.com
  4. Entry for Peter Shaver, National Archives and Records Administration. Index to the Compiled Military Service Records for the Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the War of 1812. Washington, D.C.: NARA, microfilm: M602, roll box: 186. Online at Ancestry.com.
  5. Entry for Peter Holler, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Year: 1733; Page: 77; editor: Filby, P. William, pub: Gale Research, Farmington Hills, MI, USA 2012. Online at Ancestry.com
  6. Profile for Mathias Sivey, ‘Osborn‘ family tree, Ancestry.com; https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/13493206/person/12519377711/facts
  7. Blog post, Family Finds: Laferre to LaFara: Unusual Name; https://barblafara.com/laferre-to-lafara-unusual-name/
  8. Entry for John Lee Ferry, U.S, Federal Census: Year: 1850; Census Place: Johnson, Ripley, Indiana; Roll: M432_169; Page: 240A https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8054/4192474_00109/2289855

1 Comment

  1. Susan Blakley

    Name changes are hard to trace our ancestors. It’s tricky. You have so many creative post. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

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