We like to think Shakespeare was channeling his inner family historian when he penned the famous line “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Talk to any expert genealogist and they will tell you that relying on an ancestor’s name alone can be a mistake.
It can be a tough thing to wrap your head around name variations because the times we live in are so different than they were 100+ years ago. The first American dictionary wasn’t published until 1828, and estimates for 1905 state that even then 20 percent of American adults couldn’t read or write. Literacy rates in the U.S. today are believed to be near universal, hence our belief in standardized spelling. The much quoted (and difficult to attribute) phrase “a man must be a great fool who can’t spell a word more than one way” reflects an era very different from ours.
Angie Harmon’s family history journey began with her 5th great-grandfather Michael Harman, and the spelling of his last name with an “a” instead of an “o” quickly caught her eye. The fascinating story of Michael Harman’s indentured servitude, Revolutionary War service, and family life resonated deeply with Angie’s love of big families, resilience, and patriotism. Despite his name being slightly different from hers, she instantly connected with the big risks that defined Michael Harman’s life—there was something about him that transcended his name.
Those gut feelings can be good guides, as the name Michael Harman, interestingly enough, turned out to be a very common one in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Colonial period. The story of Angie’s 5th great-grandfather had to be very carefully pieced together, as since his name wasn’t going to be enough to identify him. Two characteristics helped us find him: his occupation, and his signature.