Confusing surnames: Spelling

While researching the family history for a friend, I hit a dead end on one line. The name was “Robert Kearney,” hardly a rare or unusual name. The name was on his daughter’s baptismal certificate.  I found documents with “Robert Kearney,” but none pointed to the man I was searching. The dates did not line up, nor the places.

Since he lived during the Civil War and was of the age to fight, I explored those records. Very quickly I located Robert Carney, who fit all the particulars. Using that spelling, I quickly linked him to his daughter through other documents. Not only that, I found he used both “Kearney” and “Carney” himself.

My students encountering similar confusions wondered why these variations occurred, generally before 1900. So many records before then involved another person recording the name. This happened with ship manifests, military records, and church records. Before the day of bureaucracies demanding consistency, such mismatches little mattered.

Today genealogists are grateful for Soundex. This is a system that converts last names into a phonetic variant. Thanks to computers, a researcher can automatically cue “include Soundex” on family research sites.

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