Tuesday, January 21, 2014

“I” Before “Y”: A Census-Taking Chronology of Spelling Aberrations

In 1920, it definitely was “i.” 1930, too.

But come the 1940 census, Mary Chevis Davis and her second husband—maybe he was Franklin, maybe he was Flavious, but he definitely was Luther—saw their surname spelling changed. That was the decade they made the switch from “i” to “y.”

Not that they did it together. It took checking on two census records in two different Tennessee counties to find that out. You see, by then, the couple had decided to try their hand at the increasingly prevalent legal arrangement known as divorce.

I found Luther first, listed as F. Luther Kyte in Carter County. He was living, at the time, with his younger brother Tyler and his family, according to the 1940 census, with a big “D” inked in next to his age to confirm his marital status. Since the census asked for each respondent’s place of abode in the previous five years, it appears that Luther was in Carter County in 1935 as well, helping to narrow down the time frame in which the big split might have occurred.

Finding Chevis wasn’t so easy. For one thing, her given name of Chevis must have confused some present-day transcribers at FamilySearch.org, where she was indexed as “Cherie.” I had to find her by using her children’s names as search terms. Yet Chevis, too, had seen her surname switched to Kyte. Despite living an entire county away from her husband’s family, for some reason the Unicoi County census takers must have gotten the same memo. Kyte it was. Kite was out.

Of course, we don’t yet have the 1950 census to see if this spelling change was going to stick—though with two separate census workers simultaneously making the same spelling switch, it makes me wonder what might have been behind the change. It certainly wouldn’t be a story as obvious as some of my mother-in-law’s relatives in Ohio, who changed the spelling of their surname from the phonetically-rendered Schmeltzer to Smeltzer in an attempt during World War II to show their allegiance to their American homeland and not the land of their forebears. The Kite—or Kyte—family had been in Tennessee, as far as I could see, since before the Civil War. What was it about the 1940 census that would make them decide to get fancy with their surname’s spelling?

It was a switch that stuck, at least for one party of that ex-couple. Chevis kept that “Y” in her name. It showed up in her death certificate that way, as well as on her obituary and headstone.

As for her former husband, I’m not sure. I’m still searching through all the Kite and Kyte records for any possible Luthers, Franklins, and even Flaviouses who might match up with the few details I have on the man—if, indeed, even those items are correct.


  1. She was a decorator? A pottery decorator? That's pretty interesting.

    In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Kite is a common surname -- never have seen it spelled with a "Y." My grandfather's brother married a Kite.

    1. Ah, you saw that! Yes, Chevis worked for a pottery company. I'm hoping to write some more on that, and share some photographs, if I'm granted permission :)

      Wendy, thanks for that info on the Kite name in Virginia. I did notice there were a lot of Kites and Kytes in Tennessee when I was researching this line.

      I've even seen it spelled Kijte.

  2. Replies
    1. Yes, it was sad to see that. I never knew. That explains why I never met her, though I certainly remember family mentioning her name. Nobody ever explained what happened to her, though. Certainly in contrast to her long-lived relatives. I think grief and stress can take a major toll on life, and she certainly had quite a bit of that.

  3. Yes she died young ..48 that is young . Census takers are a whole different bunch of spellers. I think many were retired school teachers that did a fabulous job and the others were illiterate:)

    1. I don't think the retired school teachers got assigned to this part of Tennessee...


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