How is your last name spelled? Is it spelled like it sounds? Are there any silent letters? These are important questions to ask when attempting to locate family records. Most genealogical and vital record indexes are in alphabetical order, by last name. The spelling of the last name can be critical to find such a record. You have to keep an open mind, and remember to look for misspellings.
Take my last name for example, Lett. I have seen it spelled as Lett, Lette, Lott, Letts, Litt and other butcherings of this simple name. Imagine if my last name were Harshbarger or Omohundro? How many misspellings could come out of those names? Keep in mind that most people would spell your name the way it sounds. This practice of spelling by phonics needs to be in the back of your mind at all times.
Pretend that it is 1860 and you are the census taker. You approach a small farm and the wife answers the door. You proceed to ask questions, including the names of each resident. She tells you the family surname and you ask, "how is it spelled?" She responds..."I don't know, I cannot write." What are you going to do? You are going to sound out the name and write down something that is close enough.
There is a system of coding last names called the Soundex. This is a mathematical equation that gives similar sounding letters a common value. It does not use vowels and it drops any double instances of consonants. Take the word "Mississippi" for example, the Soundex would code it as "MSSP" and would therefore have a Soundex code of M221. Even if the census taker recorded the name as Misisipi, it would still show up under code M221.
The Soundex is a little confusing but a lot of genealogy sites, like Ancestry.com, use it to help locate records for your family. It alleviates many of the problems caused by misspelling, especially those that were misspelled phonically. The Soundex is not something we use when looking in an index at the local court house but we can use its principles. Always remember to add or remove double letters (check both Lett and Let) and change and/or drop vowels (check Latt, Lett, Litt, Lott, Lutt, etc.) This might help you locate a record that has eluded you for some time.
Here is another example of how indexes can also be to blame for mis-classification. My wife had an ancestor named Spencer B. Worth. For years I could not find his marriage record but I finally stumbled upon it one day...completely by accident. I saw a marriage bond index with the name "Bettisworth, Spencer" included. It caught my attention, enough that I set out to find the original marriage bond. The bond clearly stated the name as "Spencer Bettis Worth." Not only did I find the marriage bond, I also found Spencer's middle name!
Never take "no" for an answer when looking in an index. Indexes are great but they are not the end-all, be-all. People that create indexes do their best to decipher the names written on original documents. If you think about it, there is two-to-three times as much room for error in an index when compared to the original source. The lady gave her last name as Omohundro, but she could not spell it. The census taker wrote the name down phonically as Omohandro. The indexer could not read the writing and indexed the name as Onohamdro.
There are hundreds of ways to spell a name wrong and only one way to get it right. You have to learn which ways your name is typically misspelled and remember to check for them when searching indexes. You will be surprised at how many "new" documents you can find, under the "wrong" last name.