The Washerwoman’s Genes

June 27, 2006

Eleven Ways to Spell an Old Lady

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 3:38 pm

The three New York censuses for 1855, 1865, and 1875* revealed yet three more versions of my great-great-grandmother’s name. I am beginning to wonder how this could be. Everyone else’s name is correctly rendered most of the time. Oh, once Cornelius is Cornelus in a federal census, and in another Josephine is Josaphene, but overall first names tend to be spelled correctly. To be sure, Jannette—or whatever it was—was not as common a name as Mary or Elizabeth or Jane in the early nineteenth century. But still, the number of variations is somewhat unbelievable.

Did she have an accent of some sort? She was not foreign, although Jannette is reminiscent of a Dutch name; in early records Jannetje is fairly common in the area. But Jannette’s last name is Scottish or British. Nevertheless, an incomprehensible accent in a New Yorker seems unlikely.

Did she have a speech impediment? Was she toying with the census takers? Did she just change her name from time to time, the way a teenager might decide one year she is not Vicky but Torie and then later Vi and then at some point revert back to Victoria?

Here’s the list:

1850 Jenett (federal census)
1855 G (NYS census, uses only initials for first names)
1860 Jennette (federal census)
1865 Genetta (NYS census)
1870 Jeannette (federal census)
1875 Jennet (NYS)
1876 Jeannette (on daughter Josephine’s marriage certificate)
1880 Janet (federal)
1884 Genet (tombstone)
1884 Jennet (Brooklyn Eagle notice of estate filing
1912 Jennett (son Elisha James’ death cert., as rprtd by Elsie, his wife)
1917 Jeannette (son William’s death certif., as rptd by son William)
1932 Jannette (dau. Josephine’s death certif., rptd by dau. Rachel)

Perhaps the answer is that she was illiterate, and the spelling was left to the census taker; the name was uncommon enough to have no standard spelling. Or perhaps she was illiterate and on the few occasions she had to spell it out, did it differently each time, not having an innate sense of the value of standardized spelling.

The problem of her name only exists if you can read.

[Note: On September 27, 2006, I added two additional name findings, for 1876 and 1884. Both of these are duplications of versions already found, Jeannette and Jennet.]
*Viewed at the Ulster County Genealogical Society, Hurley, New York, June 24, 2006.



  1. I came across your website while searching for one of my relatives how has the same first name as one of yours. It is very time consuming trying to search for her records with so many different spellings of her name in the federal census alone. Microsoft spell checker says Jeanette is the correct spelling, but I’m sure no one is going to go back in time and tell them let alone make the changes, so I’ll just have to struggle onwards. So far I have;

    1850 Jennette
    1860 Jeanette
    1870 Genetta
    1880 Jeanette

    Comment by Rich — July 18, 2006 @ 2:22 am |Reply

  2. In 1876, on the marriage certificate of her daughter Josephine to Walter Scott Davis, g-g-grandma JQ’s name is spelled “Jeannette.” This accords with the 1879 census and the 1917 death certificate of her son William. But I can’t say this spelling is “correct” for her.

    Actually, there is no “correct” spelling of a name, in that however a person spells his or her name is the correct way for that person. Supposedly one’s birth certificate is the “correct” spelling, but we all know of people (or may be one) who’ve shifted the spellings of their names. My mother’s birth certificate says Marguerite, but she was Margaret all her life.

    There comes to be a conventional spelling (or spellings of a name), and that is why a spell checker might identify one version as correct.These days, I think, “Jeannette,” with either one or two “n’s,” is considered the right form.

    It is true for all words, not just names, that what is “correct” is a matter of how the word is typically used/spelled. The dictionary is not “proscriptive” but “descriptive,” as we used to say in teaching freshman comp. But the variant spelling on documents of old is still maddening, because you have to suspect that the various clerks and census takers and so on just didn’t bother to find out how the person preferred the name spelled and just put it down any old way.

    Comment by washergenes — September 2, 2006 @ 2:55 pm |Reply

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