It doesn't take long for researchers to realize their ancestors, no matter how well educated, did not spell and write the way we do today.
That makes it a challenge to find names online through search engines. Couple the phonetics with the hard-to-read penmanship that indexers had to decipher, and we quickly learn finding anyone in a database is a trial-and-error endeavor.
This dilemma is immediately obvious when working in census records. An example is my 1920 census search for my grandfather John Tate. How many ways can you misspell John? When I got no return on "John Tate," I tried "J. Tate." No luck. Next, I entered "Tate" in "Floyd County, Georgia."
Scanning the returns I spotted "Jok" Tate whose wife was "Liddie." My grandfather's wife was Effie Lydia so that looked promising. Sure enough, the children in the house were correct. I had found John.
Looking closely at the handwritten "John" on the census, the name is quite clear to me. The indexer, however, must have looked at it from some other angle.
Since most ancestors wrote phonetically, saying names out loud and in different regional dialects can be helpful for coming up with possible spellings.
I tried for years to find Wilkins Tate. Finally I gave up and moved on to other folks. One day, while looking in the 1830 census for Moses Pearson, a name on the next line caught my eye. It was "Wilkins State." Woo-hoo!
Try slurring the two names together and it's perfectly understandable how the census taker came up with that spelling. When I can't find someone whose given name ends in the letter "s" I now try moving that letter to the surname.
Don't take Easy Street
There are a lot of rules for conducting genealogical research, and most of us occasionally violate one or two. We think we can get by taking a few shortcuts, but that's not the best route on these journeys.
One of the cardinal rules that we should follow faithfully is to search backward, one generation at a time. I wish beginners had to take an oath to follow that rule, and that some invisible device should shock them when they violated it. (OK, so I watch too many science fiction movies).
A few weeks ago I posted to an online North Carolina message board seeking any living male who had descended through a male in each generation from Hardy Richardson of Halifax County.
Bright and early the next morning I got a telephone call from a woman who said she was calling about my post. My heart skipped a beat in anticipation of getting a nibble to my query.
But hopes were dashed when she said she thought her paternal great grandmother was a Richardson and that the family might have come from Halifax County - she felt sure Hardy was her ancestor.
As frequently happens, I put on my teacher hat and asked some probing questions. Had she used censuses to locate family members back to her great-grandmother? Had she ordered birth and death certificates that might reveal surnames of earlier generations? Had she interviewed all her living family members in an attempt to get a lead on the possible "Richardson"?
Nothing for granted
She had done none of those things. I advised her to forget Hardy Richardson and to forget Halifax County, at least for now. My caller needed to gather as much information as possible about her own father, taking nothing for granted. She needed to get his birth and death records as if she didn't even know him. Starting with the 1930 census (the latest year privacy laws allow us to explore those records), she should find her father as a child in someone's household and then work backward with each generation through the different censuses.
For each generation she works, she should follow land purchases and sales, military service, and pension and probate records - all basic records every researcher should tackle. Along the way she'll find records unique to the place and time in which an ancestor lived.
Through this methodical process she should discover the surname of her paternal great-grandmother: It may be Richardson and it may not be.
If she begins with Hardy Richardson - who had 13 children - hoping to link one of them to herself, it will be a miracle if she finds a connection.
Genealogy research is fun and challenging; that doesn't mean it is easy or quick. Avoiding the short cuts actually will save time in the long run.