When you are searching for ancestors you are digging through vital documents such as census reports, birth records, death records, etc… There are so many different variables that come into play here.
It is common to see a person listed one way in a census report then see them listed a different way in a later census. The reasons are many. The census taker comes to the door of the individual. Maybe that day your ancestor was in a hurry. He needed to get back to the field. What did he care about the accuracy of the census report?
The person writing the information down could have been in a hurry as well. Often times you will see only initials of the homeowner and family. Your ancestor was not thinking about his great great grandchild and how you will be searching for him sometime in the future.
Another factor is illiteracy. It was a common thing in the past.
A census taker would often write down his or her own idea of how the name should be spelled without simply asking your ancestor.
When searching for a family member you have to keep an open mind. Think about all of the possible spellings of the name. Many search engines will give you the option of searching for similar names. You may start with the exact spelling then try to expand your search.
I had an individual that I could only find as an adult. I was unable to find out where she came from. I ran across a document where the last letter was dropped from her name. Instead of Bryant, she was listed as Bryan.
Was it a mistake? Which listing of the name was correct? Who knows.
Some changes in the spelling of surnames was common. I went back to the census records and did a search under the name Bryan and there she was.
Nicknames are a huge factor in making the search for your ancestors challenging. On one census report it could be that your family member used his or her nickname. As you go back and look you may see the same person listed a multitude of ways because of nicknames.
It may at first appear that your second great grandfather was married to two or three different women. When in fact it is the same woman listed under different nicknames.
Some nicknames are easy to figure out such as Lizzie for Elizabeth or Frank for Francis. Some nicknames were popular at certain points in history and are not popular now such as the nickname Polly for Mary. There are nicknames that do not relate to the persons given name at all.
Be sure and always check for the persons age to be sure you are tracking the right person through history. I have found individuals that were listed under different names in every census report throughout their life. Besides checking their spouse and children to make sure that I was tracking the same person, I always kept my eye on the age.
Dropping a persons first name and using only the middle name is another common trend we see. You may be tracking a person who has consistently used their first name until all of the sudden they begin using their middle name. It was common for someone to be known in their community be their middle name.
As you can imagine a lot of families will use a name that has appeared in their family throughout history. People will name a child after one of their ancestors out of respect for that person. You may run across a mess where you see the same name all over your family tree and there are varied opinions of who is who.
It can become confusing trying to keep each William straight. Especially the further back in time you go.
Straightening this mess out can be done through intense research of the lives of each person. There are more than census reports out there. Find as much info as you can no matter how obscure. It can help identify which William is which and who was the father of whom.