What's in a name? Surname landmarking. Part 3.

Jun 10


Joseph Yakel

Joseph Yakel

  • Share this article on Facebook
  • Share this article on Twitter
  • Share this article on Linkedin

This is the third and last article in a series intended to provide some general knowledge about genealogy, tracing family history, and introduce the reader to the process of surname landmarking and how it can be used in the research process.


For genealogists and family historians,What's in a name?  Surname landmarking.  Part 3. Articles a particularly vexing research problem is the inconsistency with which family names were spelled over the span of many years. These spelling inconsistencies can make it difficult to track down and verify family relationships and/or confirm individuals related to events. Just why does the name keep changing in the first place, and how do you know you are researching the right person when the surname seems to change so frequently?

In answer to the initial half of the question, first, middle and last names were all subject to frequent misspelling, depending on who was doing the writing when your ancestors' documents were originally penned. The reasons for these errors varied, but included: lack of concern for accuracy by the writer or subject person; grammatical inability of the writer; difficulty understanding the given name (perhaps the writer was of a different nationality, and did not recognize the subject persons’ spoken words - a common error with census enumerators); simple copycat errors (the writer saw, and repeated previous misspelled references).

To the second part of the question of how one knows they are on the right track researching an individual, one way to consistently verify the identity of the subject person is through a process I call surname "landmarking". Landmarking fixes a known name to a known time and a known place, and perhaps a known occupation, thereby establishing a consistent trail to confirm the individuals' or family's identity. To be successful with this technique, I recommend researching records chronologically, year-by-year, to better evaluate the information as it is discovered.

There are numerous public records suitable for the landmarking process, but the ones referred to herein are the State and Federal Censuses, which were conducted at 5-year intervals between one another, City Directories and Tax Rolls, which were published annually, and Property Indentures. Using my own family and the aforementioned records, I will use the landmarking process to depict the sequence of individual verification over a 12-year period.

My YAKEL surname is actually an “Americanized” variant on the original Rheinish German name. The spelling has changed over 50 times (though the pronunciation has changed very little) since the family left Europe in 1847 and arrived in America. The earliest known German references, circa 1650, spelled the surname as JÄCKEL and/or JECKEL. In the following example, using landmarking, I tied my great-great grandfather’s family together by address and occupation, while, at the same time, showing 14 name variations between 1849 and 1860. The sequence follows:

1849 City Directory – John YAGLE, 106 Nucella St., Laborer
1850 Federal Census – John JACKALL, 106 Nucella St., Moulder
1850 City Directory – John YAGLE, 106 Nucella St., Laborer
1850 Property Indenture – John JEKEL, 150 Franklin St.
1851 City Directory – John JEKEL, 150 Franklin St.
1851 Tax Roll – John YEAKLE, 150 Franklin St.
1852 City Directory – John JEKEL, 150 Franklin St.
1853 City Directory – John YAGLES, 150 Franklin St.
1853 Tax Roll – John YEOKLE, 150 Franklin St.
1854 City Directory – John YAGER, 150 Franklin St.
1854 Tax Roll – John YORKLE, 150 Franklin St.

* In late 1854, the family also purchased a large farm in East Greenbush, while keeping the city property in Albany *

1854 Property Indenture – John JEKEL, East Greenbush, Farmer
1855 State Census – John YAKEL, East Greenbush, Farmer
1855 Tax Roll – John YORKEL, 150 Franklin St.
1856 City Directory – John YAGLE, 150 Franklin St., Moulder
1857 City Directory – John YAGLE, 150 Franklin St., Moulder
1857 Tax Roll – John YORKEL, 150 Franklin St.
1858 City Directory – John YEAGLE, 150 Franklin St., Moulder
1858 Tax Roll – John YORKLE, 150 Franklin St.
1859 City Directory – John JAKEL, 150 Franklin St., Farmer
1859 Tax Roll – John YORKEL, 150 Franklin St.
1860 Federal Census – John YAGEL, 150 Franklin St., Laborer
1860 Tax Roll – John YORKELL, 150 Franklin St.

In addition to the records described in this example, there are other documents that further substantiate and landmark this family over the given time period. However, for demonstrative purposes, the example research adequately shows how the landmarking process is successfully used to verify individual and family relationships.

In conclusion, armed with the knowledge that inconsistent name patterns can and will be dispersed among your family tree, you can successfully overcome this potential problem by methodically applying the surname landmarking technique to your research work.

Best of luck as you trace your history!