Things To Know

Our modern idea that everyone knows how to spell their name does not apply to early records.  Standardized spelling is a relatively recent invention, whether you’re looking at documents here or in the Old World.

Relatively few people in the Guilford area at that point in time were educated to a considerable extent and knew how to write their name – much less spell it.  Look at early documents and see how many were signed with X’s or symbols of a similar nature.  And, even if they memorized a whole signature, that doesn’t mean they could read the document they were signing.  One of my ancestors signed a bond “John Forbis” despite the fact the clerk spelled his name “Forbush” on the top line.  I suspect John Forbis/Forbes/Forbush/etc., did not know how to read.

It is generally agreed that the clerks seldom asked people how to spell their names after asking them to say their names, because the general population knew how to pronounce their names but not spell them.  And the county clerk was making these records for his own use, and not for publication 150-250 years later.  He would write the name as it sounded to his ear, and anyway the rule of law is, “If it sounds the same, it is the same.”  If a clerk was talking to a prominent person who he knew was well educated — and that was an exception in that time period, because it was a rare and expensive luxury — he may have asked for the correct spelling.  Most residents of Guilford in the early years were trying to keep body and soul together, and were living and working on the land.

So, people should not get hung up on how a name is spelled, or the variations that a county clerk used from court session to court session, or even on the same day or in the same document.  It is a fundamental that we must look for any and all spelling variations, and I’ve seen some wild ones.  It is what Elizabeth Shown Mills calls the “FAN Club” — friends, associates, neighbors — mentioned in the documents which will tell you whether it’s the same family you’re researching – not the spelling.

But even a first letter can change.  I’ve also seen some documents for two men where the surname is spelled Duck, and I can tell from the “FAN Club” that the men are actually members of the Dick family.  And I’ve seen copies of the original records, and the handwriting is clear that it is an “u” and not an “i”.  And the clerk should have known the Dick family well, as they were prominent in the community, the family patriarch William Dick sat on juries and even grand juries often, and the same William Dick owned and operated a tavern just across the road from the courthouse.

While on the subject, people should also remember that “Sr” and “Jr” can not be interpreted the way they are today, either.  When a clerk used those, he was simply indicating that there were two men in his jurisdiction who used the same name, and he was referring to the older one or the younger one.  He was not implying any relationship between them, necessarily.  They could be father and son, but they also could be grandfather and grandson, uncle and nephew, older cousin and younger cousin, or no relation at all.  And such designations were fluid and could change with a death or the arrival of someone else with the same name.

Katherine Benbow