What to Do When the Name on the Record Is Wrong

There are times when we find a record that has a few details wrong. Often, it’s easy to think of a reason why. She didn’t know where her father was born. He didn’t know how old his mother really was. But what do we do when the name on the record is wrong? That can be harder to explain.

Elizabeth vs Eliza

Eliza Johnson death record
“Eliza” Johnson. Lawrence County, Ohio Death Register vol 1, p. 324. Image on FamilySearch.

Elizabeth Johnson, born circa 1818 in Ohio, was my great-great-grandfather’s sister. She never married and always lived with her parents or a sibling. By 1880, she was blind and living with her brother Eber and his family in Lawrence County, Ohio.

The Lawrence County death records include this entry:

  • Eliza Johnson
  • Died 28 December 1885 in the “Infirmary”
  • Age 67 [which would make her born in 1818]
  • Single
  • Born in Ohio
  • White
  • Parents’ names not listed [standard for Ohio death records at that time]

The age, birthplace, marital status, and race fit. But there’s the pesky detail of it being Eliza instead of Elizabeth. The person reporting the death was B.R. Lane, who reported all of the deaths in Upper Township that year; it wasn’t a family member who should know her name.

I have 3 choices of what to do with this record:

  1. Ignore it because the name is different.
  2. Accept it because everything else fits and presume he made a mistake with the name.
  3. See what else I can find to either corroborate or refute this record is actually for Elizabeth.

I chose Option #3.

Looking for Other Records

The record I found on FamilySearch was a digitized image of the civil death record — the one that’s kept by the government. There could be other records created at the time of death of “Eliza.” The include things like:

  • an obituary
  • a tombstone and/or cemetery record
  • record of the infirmary where she died

I haven’t been able to find an obituary, nor locate a tombstone. There are no records known to exist for the cemetery where some of her siblings are buried, so I can’t check to see if she’s buried there in an unmarked grave.

Fortunately, the records of the Lawrence County Infirmary still exist and are on microfilm at the Ohio History Connection. In volume 1 of the register is this entry:

  • Elizabeth Johnson
  • “Reenrolled” 1 September 1885
  • Age and birth place not listed
  • Died 28 December 1885

The “reenrolled” note is important, as we see Elizabeth being in the Infirmary two other times. In addition, there isn’t an Eliza in the Infirmary register. I feel comfortable saying that the Eliza in the civil death record is actually Elizabeth, based on the Infirmary records.

Of course, with a common name like “Elizabeth Johnson,” there needs to be further research to determine that this Elizabeth is my Elizabeth. Long story short, there was only one other Elizabeth Johnson of approximately the same age as mine in Lawrence County at that time. The other Elizabeth Johnson was married and she died in a different year. I’m confident that the Elizabeth who died in the Infirmary is mine.

Look at What Is in Front of You

I found the evidence I needed by obtaining additional records. But additional evidence isn’t limited just to new records. We also need to fully examine the records we have in front of us.

Let’s say that the reporter on “Eliza’s” death record was listed as “William Johnson, brother.” I would have a much harder time convincing myself that he got the name of his own sister wrong. As it is, the reporter on “Eliza’s” record gave the information for everyone in the township. He didn’t necessarily know them personally; he just gathered and reported the info.

The Key: Don’t Stop

If I had discounted the “Eliza” death record because the name was wrong, I might never have looked at the Infirmary records. But I also shouldn’t accept it simply because the other data fit. The key is to keep looking. Don’t stop with the bare facts in the record. See what you can tease out. See what ideas for other records you can come up with. Dig into the nuances of the record and question it. (Is the informant a stranger or her brother?)

What records have you worked with that had the name wrong, but turned out to be the right person?

What to do when the name on the record is wrong

Posted: September 16, 2015.

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  • I have run into the Elizabeth/Eliza conundrum. I agree that you need to do everything you can to be sure it is the same person, but in my case, it turned out that Elizabeth was sometimes called Eliza. I think in the case of this name difference, it could sometimes just be an abbreviation.

    • It gets tricky since Eliza can be its own name and not just an abbreviation. In my own research, I’ve come across very few Elizabeths who also went by Eliza; maybe it just wasn’t as common in their region.

  • Your posts always leaving me thinking… And if I hadn’t rolled across your 2014 of 52 weeks – Well I would have missed out. I wouldn’t have found a great grandmother on Ancestry if I took their word on the census they wrote. they listed the family under the wrong race. I decided to open it myself – and Bingo – there she was.

  • Interesting that you consider “Eliza” to be ~wrong~. I have many relatives whose parents named them “Elizabeth” (with or without a middle name), who were known as Eliza, Lizzie, Betsey, Betty, or went by a middle name that did require corroboration. I did not consider occurrence of such variations as “wrong,” but did need to establish a pattern of use of one of the nicknames or of the middle name.

    In the case of your Elizabeth, it was likely that one 1885 death entry was by a facility employee who did not really know her, while the re-enrollment items were copied from her original admission record. If she was blind, she did not write admission data herself, but possibly a family member supplied the information. Close analysis of the admission/re-enrollment record(s) might yield a clue to where the data was coming from.

    • The thing is that Eliza can easily be its own name, not just a nickname for Elizabeth. In addition, I have seen no other record referring to this Elizabeth as Eliza. And when you’re working with such a common first name and surname, you can’t presume that this is just a nickname (much like I wouldn’t presume that John was simply a nickname for Jonathan).

      The informant was the same for everyone in that township, not just those who died in the Infirmary. In looking at the deaths for the other townships, they too have all deaths reported by one person. It appears that the deaths were reported by a township assessor or clerk, which is something I’ve seen in other Ohio counties in that time period. I agree that the information in the Infirmary records (all of her admissions) were more likely provided by Elizabeth herself or one of her family members, whereas her death information was likely reported by someone at the Infirmary. (Who, in turn, reported it to the township assessor for the county’s records.)

    • I have multiple Elizabeth’s in my family tree – they were all called Eliza! Seems to be a common family nickname in my tree.

  • It took a lot of different records – and many years of research – to confirm that the death record for “Carrie Peterson” was really for my mother’s mother’s mother.

    She was known to my mother as Caroline (Johnson) Peterson. In 2003, my mother’s sister told me that her name was Katrina Johnson, she was born in “Koping,” Sweden, and that she died on May 3rd around 1892 in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. (My mother’s sister was born on May 3rd, and that’s why she knew that date, although she was iffy on the year.) So I went back over the online index. Of course, there is no way to search for a date, and I didn’t want to use a first name, so it had to be quite broad, especially considering the very common surname. I found and ordered a death record for “Carrie Peterson,” really only because it had the death date of May 3, 1893 – in Grantsburg. The death record gave her birth date, 11 August 1847, her parents’ names as Mary and John Johnson, and birth in Sweden. I didn’t know yet if it was the right one.

    In 2007, I met a person through an online tree who was distantly related by marriage. She had the CD for Swedish emigration records (Emibas) and found the family’s emigration record. I saw that it matched the names and dates of the family members, although I couldn’t figure out whether the birthplaces given matched my aunt’s “Koping.” It gave each their “Swedish name” and town of birth. It gave Katrina’s name as Stina Carin Jansdotter, and her birth as 11 August 1847 in Björskog, Västmanland, Sweden. Wow, that matches the birth date on the Wisconsin death record …pretty good.

    In 2013, I attended a genealogy conference and discovered ArkivDigital, which has original Swedish records, and subscribed. These records are incredible; the Swedes kept very meticulous records over hundreds of years. You see, the full birth date and place is listed for each individual in the “household examination” records. (Wish U.S. census records were as thorough!) I “dove in” to all things Swedish, particularly the geography. I found that there is a Köping nearby. I found that Katrina’s Swedish name was Stina Carin Jansdotter, she was baptised Christina Catarina Jansdotter, she was born in Björskog, and her parents were Jan Jansson and Maja Jansdotter. Ah-ha, John and Mary Johnson.

    Now I can feel confidant that the death record for “Carrie Peterson” really is for my mother’s mother’s mother.

  • In looking for greatgrandparentsI ordered a death cert for each of their sibblings got all but the 10th one, Albert Owen MARKS. i searched different sernarios nothing finally went to the funeral home come to find out they had my Albert Owen Marks but they sent death info into the Oregon Health Dept under MACKS. I asked them if they could send in a correction and I also alerted the OH Dept never heard any more.

  • Doing lineage proof for an ancestor with weak links to her father — her death record in 1866 had reversed her maiden name and middle name. She was Huldah Wadsworth Hunt, but was listed as Huldah Hunt Wadsworth. The clerk had sometimes entered a common separating the women’s married name from the entry for their married name (i.e. Huldah Hunt, Wadsworth) – but not always. They did the same thing with the deceased’s mother’s maiden name. Her father’s first name only was entered, along with her mother’s first and last – no comma between (i.e. Joseph & Anna Drew instead of Joseph & Anna, Drew)

    Assumptions were made either that her father’s last name was same as her mother’s (Drew) or same as her married name.(Hunt)

    Aargh! In reviewing, I could see the married/widowed women had the same problem. To prove this ancestor was her father’s daughter, I was able to find Annual Town Reports showing her living in the almshouse under her married name (Huldah Hunt) and a death record for the year she died, also in the Annual Town Reports — with the same death date as Huldah Hunt.

    (This matched with previous records of her marriage and census reports). A lot of work!

  • My gggrandmother’s name was Deborah Marie Early, and is noted as such in my ggrandfather’s photo album. Yet her tombstone calls her Maria D. I have no idea how that happened, but I’m going with her son’s opinion.

  • My great grandfather, Harrison Lafayette McConaughy, is listed on a Kansas State Census as “L. Hasacen”. Either the census taker was hard of hearing or the person he was interviewing had a terrible accent!

  • Hi Amy, I found an interesting error in official records for my ancestors. The marriage record for Sarah Eliza Davidson in 1892 had her married to Thomas James Deck instead of Thomas’s brother, Robert James Deck. Thomas Deck had married Sarah’s sister, Jane Ann Davidson in 1886, 6 years before. I am certain the name of the groom on the record is a mistake and the marriage between Sarah and Robert took place because of other family records including birth records for their children, their death records and shared headstone. Thomas and Jane remained married until their deaths long after Sarah and Robert had died. Thomas and Jane also have a shared headstone. Robert and his brother Thomas were only 3 years apart in age so it is possible they looked similar. Also, they all lived in a very small township in rural Ontario and the marriage records were only transcribed and recorded every 6 months by the local post master. Really frustrating until I figured it all out!

  • In a birth registration I have (italian records, 1899), the informant is the father of the baby, and yet he seems to have declared that the mother of the baby was his previously deceased first wife (9 years had passed!) and not the second one………
    And I have both marriages, first wife death, various other children with both women…(and it wasn’t like this was the first child with his second spouse, either!)
    So it’s one of these:
    the office guy who wrote the registration lied about the father being there and reporting the birth,
    or he didn’t lie but didn’t really ask and assumed a name, remembering the old dead wife for some reason,
    or the father had.. “a moment” (drunk? too overjoyed for the birth?).
    I’ll never know. 😀

  • On the UK census, a few of my ancestors have their names written down wrong. Often the census takers were not from the area and misheard the thick Lancashire and Yorkshire accents and wrote down what they thought it was. The same with the church records. Once they were transcribed it changed again. I have both Eliza and Elizabeth in the same family on the same line, but also have Elizabeth known with the diminutive Eliza on other lines. My great grandfathers youngest sister had her birth date as being three years after the man who was reported to be her father on the birth cert had died. It was a deliberate error done to protect the child and not discovered till a hundred years later. I’ve found Hamas for Thomas, Sari for Sarah, Lizzie for Elizabeth, Umblet for Hamblet (Which is an usual name anyway, but has been spelt Amblett, Ambblett, Humblett, Humblet, Hamlet, Hamlett in various records), Marie for Mary, Peg/Peggy for Margaret, Nell for Ellen/Eleanor/Ellener/Helen.
    I’m starting to write lists of areas in the UK and the names and their diminutives.
    Some are so far removed from their original it’s hard to work out what they were.

  • Hi Amy. I have a 2x Great Grandma that is very difficult. The only name I have for her is Sophia or Sophiah, depending on the document, but never a last name except for married name Coats. I have not been able to find a maiden name for her anywhere. I have gone through their children’s records and all refer to her as Sophia Coats or on some (death certificates) it has even said “maiden name unknown”. I have explored the middle names of the children as her maiden name have come up with Sophia’s but none that have ever been married to a Coats. There is a Sophia Brownell but she would ave been 10 years old when she was married, would this be a reason that her maiden name was never recorded anywhere?
    Thanks Amy for the very interesting and helpful posts and newsletters.

    • It’s pretty doubtful that a 10 year old would be getting married, so I doubut that Brownell is the one you’re looking for. Was Sophia’s husband ever in the military? If so, do you have a pension file for him? What location and time period are you looking? If it’s in the US after 1850, have you looked in surrounding households where Sophia would have gotten married and looked for daughters named Sophia?

  • I never dismiss any info until proven otherwise! Learned that lesson researching my Italian grant-grand-mother born in New York… All I knew from my dad (who lived with her in Italy) was that her name was Genoveffa DeLuca, born in New York, died in Vittorio Veneto in Northern Italy, and her dad was a mason/brick layer/construction, and she had told my dad she had a brother who lived in Argentina. I found the 1892 Brooklyn Kings county census listing a Genove De Luka aged 3 born in USA of father Dona De Luka and Elisa De Luka with younger sibling Emily aged 1… also listed below them were 4 men, last name Jackomo, Flemkie, Diesia and Deisijang all from Italy also…long story short, I found records corroborating that Dona is Tony aka Antonio (per 2 listing in City directories matching the address of the girls birth certificates), Elisa is Elisabetta, Genove is Genoveffa (Genoveta on birth certificate), Emily is Melia on her birth certificate; Jackomo I had figured out phonetically was Giacomo a common surname in Vittorio Veneto… I was stumped at Flemkie (still am) and only corroborated my suspicion for Diesia and Dieisijang when I found Genoveffa’s birth certificate listing mother Elisa’s maiden name as TIZIAN..(usually a first name Tiziano) . quite the phonetic distortion ! I still have to figure out “Flemkie”..maybe Franchi?…the search continues…I’m looking at marriage records in Vittorio Veneto for clues matching the phonetic “Flemkie”… you may ask why DeLuka with a K when usually spelled with a C? My guesses looking at the rest of the census before and after their listing is that majority of residents were from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Russia etc, so maybe assumed spelling by enumerator or, maybe to fit-in, Or, now that I have my DNA results – perhaps the East European spelling? not sure.. the search continues…Sophia Pradal

  • I’ve got one for you.

    My grandfather got the marriage license for him and Granny. He told the Court Clerk that her parents were her oldest brother and his wife … not who we “know” her parents to be– and her parents wdre living at the time. I can find no corroborating evidence either way, soooo …..

  • I searched for the birth records for my father and his six siblings by searching for the name of their mother. I found all of them plus one more! Grandma Elsie was shown married to Grandpa Delbert in all of the birth records except the extra one, in which she was married to Burl Satterwhite and had his child. I know that this could not be true, but I searched for marriage records, to be sure. I researched Burl Satterwhite and his real wife and all of their children until I had a good amount of data on that family.

    What I found was that Grandma had given birth to Uncle Bill on his known birthday. Six weeks later, she had given birth to Burl Satterwhite’s child Marvin! Of course this is not possible.

    Burl Satterwhite’s child Marvin died at about 4 months old. Probably, no one ever saw that birth certificate from the 1930s. And I found that the birth record numbers were sequential, 19245 for Uncle Bill and 19246 for Marvin Satterwhite. There had been a clerical error, and my Grandmother Elsie’s name had been written on two birth certificates in a row. She was only the mother of Uncle Bill, and not the mother of Marvin Satterwhite. I was able to enter the real mother’s name, Jennie Grandstaff, in the comments on Ancestry.