Get Creative with Names
It's important for genealogists to have an open mind when it comes to names. Your family's surname, for example, was not likely always spelled the same way that it is now. It may have been “Americanized” by your ancestors in order to help them assimilate into their new country and culture. An unusual spelling or non-Latin characters may have begged for simplification. A name change may have also arisen from a desire to conceal nationality or religious orientation for fear of reprisal or discrimination. Or your branch of the family may have just decided to change the spelling to make it easier to spell or because they liked the new name better. Some are simple spelling changes — the German surname Heyer has become Hyer, Hier, Hire, Hires, and Hiers. Other changes are more obscure, such as the surname Toman being “Americanized” to Thomas.
Misspelled names are also extremely common. Most of the records in which you'll find your ancestors were recorded by someone else — a court clerk, a priest, an immigration official — who may not have known how it was spelled. Your ancestor probably even spelled his own name in different ways at different times. Names are also often just written down wrong, by people who spelled them phonetically, or by individuals trying to transcribe messy handwriting or blurred records for an index.
When searching for your family in online databases, get creative with surname spellings. If your name is plural, such as Owens, search for both Owen and Owens. Use a wildcard in databases that allow it (many genealogy databases do, although Internet search engines generally do not), to help search for several options at once. Examples of this include owen* to search for owen or owens and john* to return surnames such as john, johnson, johnsen, johnathon and johns. For each database you search, read the instructions or look for an advanced search page to see what search options are available to you. First names or given names are also candidates for variation. Your grandmother Elizabeth may also appear in records as Liz, Lizzie, Lisa, Beth, Eliza, Betty, or Bessie. You might also find her listed by her initial, as in E. Martin or E. R. Martin. Some people also go by their middle name; in this case she may be listed as Roberta Martin. These people can sometimes be the most tricky to find, because they'll often choose to use their given name in official records, and use the middle name that they are called in more informal situations. There are families in which all of the children are enumerated in one census by their first names, in the next census by the middle names they more commonly used, and in yet a third census by their initials. The key is to keep an open mind when searching for your ancestors, and to search for all possibilities before you give up.
Many genealogy databases offer a search feature called Soundex, a special type of indexing system created for use with the U.S. census and other records, which groups last names based on the way they sound so that similar names will be found together regardless of how they are spelled (e.g., Smith, Smyth, or Smythe). Learn more in the article “Soundex Explained” (