The Fascinating Facts, Fiction, and Frustrations of Family History and My Obsessive Desire to Possess Them All.

Monday, October 1, 2018

So Many Wrong Ways to Spell Wright

My Great-Grandmother is Nancy Elizabeth Wright.  Her family traces back to the founding of Nashville, Tennessee where her Great-Grandfather, James Wright died in 1816.  In tracing these multiple generations I have come across many variables of ‘Wright’ in official documents.

Will of James Wright, Davidson TN Will Book 7, page 101

In grade school we learned of Homophones.  These words are a type of homonym that sound alike but have different spellings.   When our ancestors spoke to the government official writing the document they didn’t always proofread (or maybe they couldn’t read at all) to make sure their surname was spelled correctly.

Wright has several homophones:  Write, Rite, & Right.  This can pose a challenge when searching documents or indexes.  Using the ‘Sounds Like’ as a search choice at Ancestry or other online genealogy sites will sometimes show results for these spelling variations, but not always.  

Another alternative is the Soundex Search.  A Soundex is a phonetic algorithm for indexing names by sound, as pronounced in English.  It is a letter (being the first letter of the name) followed by 3 numbers based on the phonetic sounds.  The soundex for Wright is W623.  So this search would not give results for documents using ‘Right’ or ‘Rite’.

This document is the 1836 Tax list for Davidson County, Tennessee.  Martha ‘Right', the widow of James, is listed as are her sons George, Simeon, and John.  This document would not have been found using a Soundex Search for ‘Wright’.

And just when you think you have covered all the possible variations to a surname, a wildcard will show up in the mix.  Sallie Wright, the daughter of James, married George Heard in 1822.  Their son John Vincent (now spelled) Hurd’s death certificate is shown below.

The maiden name of his mother is recorded as ‘Rice’.  It does sound a little like Wright.

When researching, take time to think about all possible spellings your ancestor’s name may have been recorded.  Find out how it may have been spelled or pronounced in his native language, if not English.   Never automatically discount a document because your ancestor didn’t spell his surname the same as you do now.  Check the index for all possible spellings and verify based on the document content as to whether it pertains to your family.  Surnames can have multiple spellings even within the same document.

Nancy Elizabeth Wright Slaughter (1883-1963)

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