A Clerical Error: How Misspelled Names Can Mislead You

Recently I received my certificate from the Sons of the American Revolution, along with my state and national number.  It’s a pretty big deal for me.  I’ve worked hard (re)discovering my ancestral lines over the past few years and with the help from the Chapter registrar and genealogist I have successfully proven my revolutionary War lineage (the first line of which will be many others).  But it doesn’t stop there for me.  And it shouldn’t stop there for you, dear reader.

In my hunt for official documentation to prove each lineage point (between parents and children), I missed some very interesting information about my ancestor George Nolf.  But it is only because his last name has become the victim of various misspellings which consist of: Wolf, Nolff, Nolfte (yes, really), Nulff, and Nulf.  This actually happens a lot.  But why did this happen?  Let’s examine the facts.

1. A Grave Misspelling

Keep in mind, as a force of good habit, one should never presume that their ancestor’s names are misspelled.  After all, someone else may have had their name misspelled and it may just coincidentally resemble one of your ancestor’s spellings.  Usually the evidence is strong enough to prove that your ancestor’s name has been misspelled, but don’t force it if the evidence isn’t there; e.g., let’s say you find a pension record of an individual whose name is similar to your ancestor’s name, but they’re not from the same county or state—chances are that it isn’t your ancestor (but judge honestly and accordingly or, better yet, keep digging!).

Still, names were constantly misspelled in American antiquity and there are several reasons for this.  Most directly, when names were written down in record books during the founding era, they were spelled how they sounded to the scribe—particularly if the person giving the name to the scribe was an immigrant.  In Pennsylvania German, ‘Schall’ sounded like ‘Sholl’ or ‘Shall’, and ‘Newhard’ sounded like ‘Neyhart’ or ‘Nughart’ depending on the person pronouncing it.  But the problem doesn’t just stop there. Many of our earliest manuscripts dating to the American Revolution are retyped from original hand-written documents and mistakes were often made when the clerk would try to read the faded chicken scratch.

And even then, some of those earlier records that were later retyped were not even originally recorded until decades later.  For example, some of the service records for individuals in the Pennsylvania Line are little more than names written on index cards with a few inscribed notes.  But these were often done by clerks in the 1790’s and into the early 1800’s, not long before the pension claims were being processed.  And by then most of the eyewitnesses who were interviewed for the information were either extremely old or very dead.  So they recorded only what they could, and sometimes even that information—though acquired from eyewitnesses or contemporary hearsay—was recorded incorrectly.

So you have to really use good judgment when analyzing the past.  It is OK to say ‘I don’t know’—in fact, one should use that phrase more regularly than any certain claim when it comes to ancestry.  In point of fact, unless you have a well-documented paper trail, with things like deeds, wills, and other government records (like tax documents and official property maps), ‘certainty’ is a term best reserved for another ancestor whose documentation is more available.  A link, without acceptable evidence, can be ‘reasonably probable’ given circumstantial details, but can’t be ‘certain’.

2. George Nolf, Ranger on the Frontier

I’ve written on my ancestor George Nolf before (twice actually, and you should read the articles if you plan on researching your Pennsylvania ancestors!), but it is always good to rehash topics—reevaluate, reexamine—because sometimes when you get too comfortable with the details you already know, you tend to stop searching for other details, or get bored and move on to another ancestor, and then you miss out on new discoveries.

Case in point: while looking through the Pennsylvania Archives, I stumbled across the name ‘George Wolf, Capt.’ in the section on ‘Rangers on the Frontier 1778-1783’.  It struck me as familiar.

Note: 'George Wolf, Capt.' in the left column.

Note: ‘George Wolf, Capt.’ in the left column.

I’d seen that name before, appearing in the book on Palmer Township history from the local Historical Society.  Unfortunately, whoever compiled the book has the name wrong—it isn’t ‘George Wolf’ but ‘George Nolf’ (verified through marriage records and official documents—which the compiler of the book did not have).  Is it likely that the George Wolf mentioned in the Archives is actually George Nolf as well?

photo(67)

Under ‘3. Susanna Edelman’ you’ll see ‘Married George Wolf’, which should actually be ‘George Nolf’ (from the Palmer Township Historical Society book on Palmer History).

Well, as it happened, I was always perturbed by the fact that when I searched the Archives for ‘Nolf’ (and cognates) I never found anything in this particular section.  After all, the archive abstract cards show him listed as ‘on the frontier’ during this period of time and all the pension and service records indicate that he was a Ranging Captain.  So why could I not find him on this list?  (I get annoyed by things like this, apparently)

So finding George Wolf, a Captain during the same period of time as George Nolf, was interesting.  So like any good historian would, I dug deeper.  I searched all the officer abstract cards at the archive for a ‘George Wolf’ and found nothing.  So I moved onto the regular militia abstract cards and again found nothing.  I did a general search on Fold3 and the only reference to pop up was the very reference I had found in the Rangers on the Frontier section.  There are, of course, plenty of other ‘Wolf’ veterans out there, but none named ‘George’ from Northampton County and none of them were officers.

It seems that George Wolf, Captain from Northampton County, did not actually exist. After all, an ‘N’ is just a ‘W’ that is missing the first down-stroke of the pen (and in some cursive hands, the ‘N’ looks exactly like a ‘W’). There is also another ‘Wolf’ on the same page as ‘George’, and it may have just been a trick of the eye when the clerk was typing up the archival records. Given the overlapping of dates given between the George’s, the lack of anyone named ‘George Wolf’ in Northampton County at the time (well, that isn’t true; future-Governor George Wolf was in Northampton County, but only a few months old at this time), and the plethora of other evidence, it seems that George Nolf’s last name was misspelled.  The George Wolf listed on the Rangers of the Frontier section of the Archival records is most probably George Nolf.

3. Miscellaneous Stuff

The easiest way of demonstrating just how muddy the misspelling can get, here are all of the Militia abstract cards I’ve found relating to George Nolf.  These are all located at one place, and “contains transcriptions of data extracted from original records in the custody of the State Archives concerning Revolutionary War service in the Pennsylvania Militia, Pennsylvania Line, and the Navy” (according to the PA Archives site).

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Note: ‘On the Frontier’!

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