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How do you say that again?! A new reading on name spellings in early America

I came across a highly entertaining and educational record on FamilySearch this weekend.  At first I thought I was looking at some sort of record entirely in abbreviations.  Upon closer inspection, I realized it was a ledger of births.  (Serves me right for skipping the front matter on the record – never skip that!) 

Experienced genealogists know that spelling before the early 1900s was largely a function of the hearing of the person creating the written record, and the speech of the person doing the telling. Spellings weren’t codified for another 100 years or so from the time this record was made.  Before about 1900, Gs and Cs are often interchangeable, double letters may or may not be consistent for first and last names, as ‘s’ sounds may sometimes be recorded as ‘sh’ or ‘sch’ sounds, as just a few examples.

This record, however, puts an entirely new spin on the spellings of names in early America.  From this record, we have the following beauties:

Record spellingModern-day spelling
BaleBillie
DamesThomas
ElsEllis
TschimsJames
TschohJoe
DefesDavis
GelleKelly
GinigemCunningham
HauerdHoward
MegfenMcFen
MogelorgenMcGallagher
OlfilOldfield
RabesenRobinson

How on earth did this person get to those spellings for these names? 

If you read another language, you may have noticed some tell-tale signs from the phonics.  If you don’t, here’s the answer: the person recording this information was German.  In fact, she was a German midwife working in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania from 1791 to 1815. 

Susanna Müller, of Providence Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania kept a record of the more than 1,600 births in which she assisted.  The daughter of John Rohrer, she was born 16 March 1756 and died 22 Nov 1815. She married a Swiss immigrant, Peter Müller, and had eight children of her own. 

Her spellings reflect her attempt to capture the names as accurately as she could.  Given that she used ‘tsch’ to represent the English ‘j’ sound, it is clear her education in reading and writing was conducted in German. 

Example of German handwriting in 1792

Something that makes this record even more fascinating is that, because she spelled phonetically using German representations, we can get a sense of the local accent of the time, at least in Lancaster.  If ‘Olfil’ is actually ‘Oldfield’ we can see that the speakers of the time did not pronounce the long ‘e’ in field the way we do today.  (This accent is actually present today in parts of Utah and Idaho where hard vowels become short ‘i’s such as ‘sale’ being pronounced ‘sill’ and ‘heel’ pronounced ‘hill’.)  Susanna’s rendition of ‘Robinson’ suggests the speaker swallowed the ‘n’ sound. 

The fact that she was literate at all is noteworthy for the time. Good data for that time period is hard to come by, but Our World In Data shows English (in the UK) literacy rates for women increased from 33% in about 1750 to 51% in 1840.  The U.S. could be presumed to have similar rates. Regardless, writing was seen and taught as an entirely different skill than reading.  This means that even fewer people could write than could read. 

Susanna’s record reflects a keen intellect in its detail and consistency.  Physicians of the day thought so, too. According to the narrative compiled by M.D. Learned and C.F. Brede when they published this record in 1903, one physician on whom she called to assist when she suspected an anatomical irregularity in a birth said, upon learning that it was Susanna Müller attending, “Then it is all right, she knows as much about the case as I do.”

What other gems are hidden in her ledger?  Take a look at the transcribed record and share some of the interesting things you find!

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This entry was posted on 22 November 20 by in Uncategorized.

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