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Jan 28

Spelling Variations in Public Records

Posted on January 28, 2019 at 11:54 AM by Chester County Archives

Barnard ExampleFive members of the same extended Bernard/Barnard family signed this administration bond differently.

When asked to give our names, it is not uncommon to hear “And how do you spell that?” The concept of proper spelling is second nature to us. When we are born we are given a birth certificate and social security number that will follow us throughout our lives. Our name, in essence, is our ID.


For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries your unique identity was tied to your residence and occupation. The concern was not so much how you spelled “Samuel Johnson” as much as knowing that Samuel Johnson lived in Sadsbury Township and was a blacksmith. Knowing this relevant information for your ancestor is much more important in this time period than knowing the exact spelling of their surname.

Before the twentieth century, if you were asked to provide your name, a clerk rarely asked “And how do you spell that?” They simply recorded it as they heard it. After providing your name, you would never stop to wonder why they never asked you how to spell it, let alone check to see if it was spelled correctly. Our concept of “proper spelling” was foreign to most of our ancestors. There are plenty of examples in the deeds, tax records and court records at the Chester County Archives where the clerk wrote the same name multiple times in the same document and varied the spelling just as often.


Deed Example

The surname Gillespie is spelled several ways in this one deed which was drawn up by one individual likely in the presence of the said Gillespie.


The tension between “proper spelling” and phonetics makes tracing your family history in public records difficult. Archivists often hear, “Our family spells the name this way, so that can’t be him.” Discounting any variation in your family name will likely lead you to an insurmountable brick wall. Not only because most names were spelled phonetically in earlier time periods, but because clerical errors abound in public records.

Chrisman Example

John Chrisman and Jacob Christman are brothers, but each spelled their surname differently on the same administration bond.


One of the many ways clerks could unwittingly alter the spelling of a surname was in their attempt to interpret another’s handwriting. Today, if we encounter poor handwriting, we are generally reduced to using our own judgment. What this means is that we can inadvertently introduce something that isn’t there but we think should be there, adding a letter or two to something we can’t make sense of. Take the abbreviation for the given name Joseph, which is Jos. If the “o” was poorly formed or illegible the clerk could write the name down as James instead. Or take for example the lowercase forms of the letters U, N, M, W, R, I, E. When a name is written with two or three of those letters in a row, it can be difficult to distinguish between them. Frame could become Fraine, both unique Chester County surnames.


It helps to have an understanding of the process in which the records you are using were created. At the most basic level, you want to know how close the record was to your ancestor. At what point in the creation of the record was your ancestor providing this information? Tax records, and the process in which they were created, help illustrate this point.  When the local tax assessor documented the taxable property in the township, they recorded the information, including the spelling of names, directly from the individual. Unfortunately, this record most likely did not survive. The return was eventually transcribed by the county assessor who had to interpret the township assessor’s handwriting. The county assessment and the tax rates were records written by the county assessors using the returns submitted by the township assessors, and thus two or three steps removed from your ancestor.

Tax Example

The first list of names was submitted on the local assessor’s tax returns in 1783. By the time the county assessors drew up a list of rates, a number of variations to the spellings of several surnames crept into the final list.


Phonetics, however, is the biggest hurdle to overcome when using public records. In almost all circumstances vowels are fully interchangeable. Take the surname Ayres. The “A” can easily be replaced with an “E” and the “Y” with an “I,” “A,” or an “E;” Airs, Ayers, Eayres, Eyres, Aeirs. This works the same with hard consonants like “C,” “K,” and “G” such as Crow and Grow, Gunkle and Kunkle, Cain and Kain, or “D” and “T” for Detterline and Tetterline, or “B” and “P” for Bickle and Pickle.  Also be aware of letters that sound alike, like “S” and “Z” and “F” and “PH.” For an example of common Chester County surname variations, see this document.

The following record is a good example of the potential spelling pitfalls you may come across in public records.

Nichols Example
 
When Thomas Nichols died in 1826, he left a widow named Mary and seven children. The clerk or lawyer who drew up the documents filed in the Orphans’ Court after Nichols’s death mainly spelled his surname Nichols, with some slight variations such as Nickols and Nicholes. Researchers may surmise that because Thomas was deceased, and not there to make corrections, errors could easily have crept in. His family’s signatures, however, tell a different story.

In their petition for guardians, the Nichols family signed their name in four distinctly different ways. Thomas’s widow signed her name Mary “Nickols,” and his daughters signed their names Phebe “Nickls,” Ann “Nicklas” and Elizabeth “Nickels.” In one file there are six versions of the same name and on one document the family signed using four different versions. This is problematic if you consider that, logically, several of the girls (if not all of them) were taught by the same teacher. It is clear that spelling standardization was not taught and no one signing the document thought to look at the other signatures. This is only one example of many that exists in our holdings.

So don’t be surprised to see your surname change several times over the course of a century. Each generation may have had its own take on how to sign their name. Something as simple as a vowel change from “i” to “y” can cause researchers to overlook pertinent records. Take the time to anticipate all the potential phonetical spellings of your surname. While it may seem silly, try saying it out loud with accents. If your ancestor was Scottish, how would a clerk hear his name pronounced? By doing so you may break through that brick wall and open up new avenues of research.


Dec 24

Christmas Dinner at the Chester County Poorhouse

Posted on December 24, 2018 at 11:39 AM by Chester County Archives

PH37 Album 2 -289
Photograph of the Chester County Poorhouse by Max J. Mueller, 1889. Courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society 

The Chester County Home, or poorhouse, was located in West Bradford. It took in its first residents in 1800; before that the care of poor and infirm Chester Countians was the responsibility of individual townships and boroughs. In 1900 an insane asylum was opened within the Home’s complex of buildings. Residents of the poorhouse and asylum, if physically able, worked on the Home’s farm or in other aspects of the institution’s operations. (1)

Surviving records at the Chester County Archives provide general information on what the residents ate. Even more revealing is a detailed menu book for 1924-1926 recorded by the Directors of the Poor. Residents received three meals daily, with the mid-day dinner the largest. (2) However, not everyone at the Home or Insane Asylum was given the same food. The book lists separate menus for three categories of residents: indigent/non-working, working, and private patients (residents who were charged room and board). According to an April 24, 1924 Daily Local News article, the different menus were designed to provide more calories to working and private patients, who were described as “more active than the other patients.” (3) The article listed the carbohydrate, protein, and fat amounts in a week’s meals. Indigent residents who could not work were fed less and received a greater percentage of their calories from carbohydrates.

444
Image of the Chester County Home menu book (1924-1926) accompanied with a 1924 Daily Local News article

For example, here is the menu for December 29, 1925. Notice the omission of scrapple from the indigent non-workers’ breakfast. The private patients received butter for their bread at all three meals, working residents had butter at one meal, and indigent non-workers did not get butter at all that day.


Private Patients
Working Class
Indigent
 Breakfast  Breakfast  Breakfast
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Scrapple
  • Bread or Toast, Butter
  • Milk or Coffee
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Scrapple
  • Bread
  • Milk or Coffee
  • Oatmeal
  • Bread or Toast
  • Milk or Coffee
 Dinner  Dinner  Dinner
  • Beef
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Tea
  • Beef
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Bread
  • Milk or Tea
  • Bread
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Bread
  • Milk or Tea
 Supper  Supper  Supper
  • Cold Meat
  • Fried Potatoes
  • Bread or Toast, Butter
  • Bread Pudding
  • Milk or Cocoa
  • Cold Meat
  • Fried Potatoes
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Cocoa
  • Bread or Toast
  • Bread Pudding
  • Leftovers
  • Milk or Cocoa

But perhaps there’s a more obvious explanation as to why the private patients generally received more food other than their level of activity—they were literally paying to be there and providing necessary funds to the Home. As it is likely that some private patients were unable to work, their additional food, such as more butter, may have been provided simply because they or their families were paying for it.  

Although most days there were notable differences between the meals the different “classes” of residents received, this was not true for Christmas dinner. While the breakfasts were markedly different, dinner was exactly the same. Christmas supper for everyone consisted of many more sweets than usual. 

Private Patients
Working Class
Indigent
 Breakfast  Breakfast Breakfast
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Fried Bacon
  • Fried Potatoes
  • Bread or Toast, Butter
  • Milk or Coffee
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Fried Bacon
  • Fried Potatoes
  • Bread
  • Milk or Coffee
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Bread or Toast
  • Milk or Coffee
 Dinner  Dinner Dinner 
  • Roast Chicken
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • String Beans
  • Celery
  • Cold Slaw
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Tea
  • Roast Chicken
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • String Beans
  • Celery
  • Cold Slaw
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Tea
  • Roast Chicken
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • String Beans
  • Celery
  • Cold Slaw
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Tea
 Supper  Supper Supper 
  • Stewed Prunes
  • Fruit Cake
  • Ice Cream
  • Oranges, Candy
  • Bread or Toast, Butter
  • Milk or Cocoa
  • Stewed Prunes
  • Fruit Cake
  • Ice Cream
  • Oranges, Candy
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Cocoa
  • Stewed Prunes
  • Fruit Cake
  • Ice Cream
  • Oranges, Candy
  • Bread or Toast
  • Milk or Cocoa

Today Americans tend to associate certain foods with certain holidays, but what we view as traditional dishes were not necessarily on the table at the County Home. All three Christmas dinners documented in the menu book (1924-1926) featured roast chicken and mashed potatoes – not turkey, goose, or ham. And while Thanksgiving dinner at the poorhouse was more elaborate than other days, the main dish all three years was roast pork. The 4th of July, now known for picnics, was no different than other days. If you had been there in 1925, your Independence Day dinner would have been beef stew.

While early 20th-century holiday food traditions of more affluent families are well-documented in magazines and cookbooks, the Chester County Home menu book offers a rare glimpse into the meals of those who, whether due to poverty, illness, or disability, could not care or provide for themselves.

Sources:


1) Click here for an overview of the Chester County Home.

2) Menu Book 1924-1926, Chester County Directors of the Poor, Chester County Archives and Records Services, West Chester, PA.

3) "Food of a Week at County Home." (West Chester, PA) Daily Local News, April 24, 1924. Clipping found in Menu Book 1924-1926.
Nov 29

The Chester County War Aid Association

Posted on November 29, 2018 at 8:41 AM by Chester County Archives

WWI--Parade
Returning soldiers parade near Market and Church Streets in West Chester, 1919. Image from the Chester County Historical Society. 

From his location near the frontlines in France, Spring City native Christie Collopy was thinking of his Chester County home. In a letter dated August 14, 1918, Collopy wrote to the Chester County War Aid Association (CCWAA) and thanked them for sending the local newspaper. “Things are pretty hard at the present time over here.”  He wrote. “So when a letter or paper comes it makes you forget the fighting for a while.” (1

Collopy did not think very highly of his German counterparts. They were “not very hard fighters…are afraid of us and all want to be taken prisoner, or at least quit.” Collopy was a U.S. Marine and a local hero to the folks in Chester County.  He single-handedly eliminated a German machine gun nest, and for his bravery, he received the Croix de Guerre by the French government and the Distinguished Service Cross by the United States government. (2) 


Collopy news article
On July 3, 1918, the New York Herald included a brief mention of Collopy's act of bravery. 

Similar heroic stories fill the papers of the CCWAA housed at the Chester County Archives. The CCWAA was a relief organization that started in December 1917 to support the Chester County soldiers and nurses serving in WWI.  The collection consists of cards, correspondence, an account book of items sent to soldiers and nurses overseas, and miscellaneous WWI reference materials and clippings collected by secretary, Isabel Darlington. (3)

During the war, the CCWWA collected tobacco, knitted sweaters and wristlets, helmets, mirrors, combs, comfort bags, and local newspapers to send to those serving in Europe. The CCWAA even commissioned local companies to knit sweaters while other knit goods were made by local women who volunteered their time.  On occasion, a soldier in a hot climate mistakenly received a sweater and returned it with good humor suggesting that it be sent to a man in cooler places. 

WWI Coatesville Stockings
Women from Coatesville show off the stockings they knitted to send oversees, circa 1918. Image from the Chester County Historical Society

One such example was Clifford Golder of West Chester. A CCWAA member asked Golder if he would like a pair of wool garments in which he replied, “I am on the front now and we carry very few extra clothes.” In return, Golder sent a piece of an aviation balloon that a German soldier shot down. (4)

This collection captures the impact that WWI had on Chester County and the ability of local residents to rally around a patriotic cause. However, not all the stories are cheerful, as some capture the grim realities of war. 

Many in the County wrote Darlington and pleaded for any information about their loved ones overseas. The parents of Luke J. Crosby asked about the whereabouts of their son after local newspapers listed their son as missing in action. Darlington forwarded the letter to the Adjutant General’s office, and on December 9, 1918, the concerned parents were informed that “[Luke] has been reported missing in action since October 21st, 1918.” (5) To further complicate matters, volunteers at the CCWAA mistakenly wrote “Killed in Action” on Crosby’s soldier card. No matter where the Crosby parents looked, they were always answered with bad news.

CrosbyID
Luke J. Crosby's card filed by the CCWAA. Volunteers incorrectly wrote that Crosby had been MIA than KIA. They corrected the false information. 

That changed on December 21, 1918, when they received a follow-up letter from the Adjutant General stating, “I am happy to inform you that a cable received in this office from abroad states that Private Luke J. Crosby, Company I, 111th Infantry, previously reported missing in action since October 21st, 1918, is now reported as having returned to duty November 18, 1918.” (6)

002
The reverse of Luke J. Crosby's card where CCWAA volunteers pasted newspaper clippings about the Chester County soldier.

Updates from the battlefield were slow to reach the concerned families of Chester County, but soldiers too were often left in the dark. In May 1919, Louis Slawter of the 113th Engineers stationed in France wrote to Darlington. 

“In a recent letter from my sister, I was informed you sent me a cablegram of my father’s death. This I wish to thank you for although it never reached me and I knew nothing of my loss until the second week of April.” 

Slawter lamented on the unfortunate news. 

“We have to lose our dear ones sometime in life and it comes to me harder than one could imagine on account of my being so far from home and the way in which it happened. I have tried to bear it all as best I could though it was very hard.” (7)

Slawter obit clipping
The obituary for William Slawter, the father of Louis Slawter, published in the Delaware County Daily Times on August 21, 1918. 

After the war, the CCWAA helped returning veterans find employment as well as aid the injured. Darlington sent a welcome letter and questionnaire to each returning veteran inquiring about their need for a job, physical ability to work, and job skills. Through the generosity of Ms. Pierre S. du Pont, a Reconstruction Center equipped with 48 beds was established at Longwood on May 12, 1919 for sick or wounded soldiers. Upon admission a man could stay at the Reconstruction Center or visit as needed. The Center functioned until 1921.  

This unique collection of CCWAA papers has been processed, indexed, and made accessible to the public. It captures the history of WWI from both the perspective of service members on the front lines as well local residents back on the home front. The war proved to be one of history’s darkest moments, but the CCWAA responded with charity and patriotism. This collection humanizes the WWI experience and connects Chester County to the broader history of this important event.  

Sources:

1) Christie Collopy to Isabel Darlington, August 14, 1918. 
2) "Bravery of Officers Cited," New York Herald, July 3, 1918.
 
3) The Chester County War Aid Association Papers.
4) Clifford Golder to Isabel Darlington, August 1918.
5) U.S. Adjutant General Office to Thomas Butler, December 9, 1918.

6) U.S. Adjutant General Office to Thomas Butler, December 21, 1918.
7) Louis Slawter to Isabel Darlington, May 4, 1919.