Saturday, September 15, 2018
How Do You Spell it, Anyhow?
I'm often reminded of the importance of studying the milieu surrounding our ancestors' lives. This past month, while I've put on the public "game face" at A Family Tapestry of puzzling over how to return abandoned family photographs to long-lost family members, behind the scenes, I've had a delightful time helping a family member navigate the challenges of DNA testing to discover the true identity of her maternal grandfather.
The wonderful surprise was learning that he was certainly Italian in origin—an unexpected turn of events for this Irish-American and Eastern-European descendant. With a steep learning curve ahead of her, this inquisitive budding genealogist had no hesitation in diving right in and immersing herself in the research.
Doing the documentation dance was no problem at first. Reconstructing the paper trail of this man and his Chicago-area family seemed to make sense at first. But pushing back through the decades, coming perilously close to the date of his parents' arrivals in their New World, she hit a stumbling block: spelling.
Apparently, the Chicago family she learned about had always spelled their surname with a final "a"—the sound of a good Italian surname, I suppose. Then came the point of discovering that the family hadn't come straight from Italy to Chicago, but had originally landed in New York. And stayed there for a while.
When I found some documentation of this detail and showed it to her, the immediate response was, "That can't be my family; they spell their name differently." This surname, according to the records, concluded with an "i," not an "a."
Of course, that was the 1890s and it was New York, home of the indifferent bureaucrat. But it was also home of some large Catholic churches, as well—not to mention the thousands upon thousands of fellow immigrant Italians. Perhaps it was they who got it right and the Chicago contingent who were mistaken.
It took a while for this new researcher to warm to the idea that not everyone takes spelling as seriously as twenty-first century teachers. But eventually the wonder that is genetic genealogy opened her eyes to the possibility that, yes, this New York contingent might well be related to her—after all, there was a link to a descendant of that very New York family showing up in her matches!
It is quite circumspectly that we approach the puzzles of spelling "creativity." What could be simply a case of liberality in one's spelling habits might, on the other hand, represent a rabbit trail leading to false conclusions. Oh, that everyone understood the need for standardization in spelling as we "enlightened" modern people do—or, perhaps, we just need to get over ourselves and realize that things were different in bygone eras.
In the meantime, it is perhaps for our research protection that we have this parallel way to test our spelling assumptions—a way to test everything from wondering whether two Fullers were descendants of the same Mayflower ancestors to examining whether two people having differently spelled versions of the same surname could actually be related.