A name, by any other name, is still a name. Or is it?

Published October 10, 2011 by Julie Watts #

There are so many opportunities for names to be, not just misspelled, but completely butchered. What a mess as far as researching family lines goes! Too bad they didn’t have computers “back then.”

I’ve been researching my family for over forty years and have found some errors that leave me wondering about the common sense of record keepers, census takers, and the original transcribers — and some leave me laughing.

My 2nd great-grandfather’s name, Xavier Thomas Prentis, was transcribed from the 1850 census as Havier Runtz! I kid you not. No wonder it took so long for me to find it. The name of his widowed mother, above his, was correctly transcribed as Mary Prentis. Ten years later, the 1860 census was transcribed correctly — but his name is incorrect on the original as Exavier Prentiss, handwritten with the long s: Prentiſs. In 1870, it’s transcribed as Xame Prentiss, again handwritten as Prentiſs, but reads Xavier on the original. According to my family, he typically used only the initials, X. T., and no wonder! Also living with them in 1850 and 1860 was Mary’s unmarried, older sister. In 1850, she was Philona R. Edwards. In 1860, she is Philora. (Was it Philona or Philora?) On the Iowa WPA Graves Registration site, Xavier’s name is recorded as Xaviert Prontis! and on Findagrave.com, his name was Xavier T. Prentice (until my correction was accepted), while his actual headstone, the first in the cemetery, was correct according to my father. (Thanks to a volunteer photographer, this was eventually verified). Even his name in his obituary printed in the Ringgold Record was misspelled and the “surviving widow” it mentioned had actually predeceased him — AND while the year of death in the obituary is 1884, by golly if the year of his death inscribed on his headstone photo isn’t 1885! Transcribers for WGA blessed my great-grandfather with the Prontis alias, too, and in the 1870 census, he was Elizier E. Prentiſs.

Xavier Thomas Prentis
Xavier Thomas Prentis

My grandfather, with the same name as his grandfather — except he didn’t know it for about 40 or 45 years — used only the initials, even as a child. Oh, he knew he was named for his grandfather, but he apparently thought his grandfather’s name was only X. T., too. Anyway, in several census records, all handwritten correctly if you look at the actual documents, Granddad’s name is transcribed incorrectly as A.T. Prentice, K.T. Prentis, and N.T. Prentis. Only in the social security death index is he X. Prentis. If I hadn’t known the names of others in the family, I would probably still be looking for those records.

Besides errors like those — and the fact that there have been three predominant variations of my maiden name in this country since the 1600s (PRENTIS, PRENTISS, and PRENTICE — all here at that time believed to be somehow related to one another), there were also a few “creative” variations with extra t’s, s’s, or e’s thrown in here and there for about the first hundred years in America (PRENTIES, PRENTTIES, PRENTS and others — possibly even some colonial familes called PARENTS and PRINCE may be related too). Prior to 1600 in England there were yet more variations of the name with z’s instead of s’s (PRENTZ, PRENTIZ, PRINTZ), etc.

Before my great grandfather, who complicated matters more with the spelling of his first name (was it Glasier or Glazier?), the spelling of our surname varied even within generations, or in one instance between husband and wife! The headstones of my 7th-great granduncle and his wife, side by side, show two different spellings of the couple’s last name. Yes, really. Their children’s and grandchildren’s headstones in the same cemetery show other variations, as do those of other relatives. Many of these were educators, doctors, businessmen, community leaders and politicians, so it wasn’t a case of uneducated people misspelling their own names.

Capt. Jonathan Prentties, 1657-1727
Capt. Jonathan Prentties, 1657-1727
Elisabeth Latimer Prentis, 1667-1759
Elisabeth Latimer Prentis, 1667-1759

Names in church and parish records weren’t always recorded correctly, or spellings sometimes changed depending on who entered them — a name on a birth record may be spelled differently on a marriage or death record. The same minister could have even written it different ways at different times. Further complications arose with errors on deeds and military records and when typesetters for newspapers made mistakes in obituaries. I’ve even seen records with the names in the body of the document reading Prentiss and/or Prentice, then signed Prentis — or vice versa. That’s not even accounting for nicknames or being called only by initials or a middle name rather than a given name, or the delivering physician (who happened to be an uncle) filling out a name on a birth certificate incorrectly — and forgetting to correct it — then realizing 40-some years later when you lose a bet because the birth certificate you thought didn’t exist does, and you “suddenly” have a full name by which you’ve never been called.1

I’m not even going to get started with my TENNANT, TENANT, TENNENT fiasco… yet.

One thing after another, and something as simple as a name can get pretty complicated!

Six Generations
Six Generations
  1. Granddad was always “just X” or “just X. T.” and didn’t know he had any name but the initials until when serving in the Iowa Senate, a news reporter asked his full name. Like the many other times he’d been asked, he told the man his name was “just X. T.” The reporter bet him that he had a full name on his birth certificate, but Granddad didn’t think he had one of those either. The reporter had done his homework and had either already found a copy, or then went and searched for it, but a birth certificate bearing a full name of Xavier Thomas Prentis was produced. Apparently when he was born, his uncle Percy was the doctor who delivered him, and when he asked what name he should write in the register, my great grandfather told his brother to “name him after Dad.” “Uncle Doc” wrote down the full name of his father, Xavier Thomas Prentis, but Granddad was only ever referred to thereafter as X. T. On all other official (and correctly transcribed) records — besides his birth certificate, apparently — he was “just X. T.”