Every day I deal with people’s names. Whether it be their first name, middle or their surname. These names are found on census records, wills, deeds, or transcribed on Ancestry.com (which has maybe the worst search engine in the universe). The names I research can and will be written in a myriad of different ways. Just yesterday I saw the name Boyette spelled Boytt and Boyd and the name Cinderella spelled Sindarella, Cindarella and Scindarella. Many times people who are new to the family searching business will be dismissive of a surname that isn’t spelled exactly the way they themselves spell it, but I explain that if I was that particular when looking into my own surname of Robinson I would have missed half of the family. I’ve seen the same ancestor in different records spell the name Robertson, Robison and Roberson.
Frequently these ancestors in the Carolina hinterland are illiterate and we assume that they don’t know the right way to spell their name, but that assumption is a bit off. It is only a recent convention to have a “correct” spelling for words in the English language let alone surnames. English was a phonetic, spoken language first and a written language second. Sir Walter Raleigh, a lettered man, sure as heck didn’t know how to spell his name. His surname was counted to have been spelled 70 different ways during his lifetime. Walt himself even spelled his name three different ways in a 1578 deed, Rawleyghe, Rawlygh and Ralegh. In William Stebbing’s book, Sir Walter Ralegh (sp), A Biography (1891) he states,
There was no standard of orthography for surnames till the latter part of the seventeenth century. Neither the owners, nor others were slaves to uniformity. Posterity has used its own liberty of selection, often very arbitrarily…For Raleigh’s name his contemporaries never had a fixed rule to the end of him. Transcribers with the signature before them would not copy it; they could not keep to one form of their own. His correspondents and friends followed the idea of the moment.
One can probably assume that the lack of uniformity in the orthography of the spelling of surnames in America probably persisted well past it becoming out of vogue in Britain in the seventeenth century (which has also been seen with other traditions).
Thanks to the Sir Walter Raleigh Collection at UNC Chapel Hill for the information on Sir Walter’s name