Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Names and how they change!

One of those caveats of which we often need to be reminded, is that last names were not always spelled consistently, and they often morphed a bit into new names. Even just two generations back, I have ancestors whose last names varied (as written by family members themselves) with the ending of an "e" or no "e," and a "ch" or a "k." And this was done in a family full of schoolteachers.
While recently looking at some potential matches with autosomal DNA, I came across the name "Gonsalis" or "Gonsales." That didn't seem to be a name that would fit with what I was looking for in terms of a typical Northern New York surnme, so I discounted it. Later, I looked into it, not wanting to leave any stone unturned. Well, "Gonsalis" went through some interesting mutations, one of which is "Consaulus,"and a variation on that--"Consauls. " That puts a whole new spin on the search process.
"Consauls" and its variations are common in Northern New York, and make a good fit for a DNA match. Those bearing that surname may well be unaware of the Spanish origins it suggests.
It is important to treat historical names as flexible in their orthography, and to think about what permutations there might be out there. I certainly doubt that the census informant for each household checked with the census-taker that the names were spelled correctly. So I often look at a whole page or two of census names to see what kind of speller I am dealing with. Is it particular, or phonetic, or rather hastily recorded? Flexibility allows the researcher to catch opportunities for finding what might be missed with a rigid approach to spelling. We can't apply our expectations of browsing through today's phone book to searching yesterday's census and property records.

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