Early VA Meachams -- Variant spellings


Variant spellings, surname streams and database search

[April 15, 1999]

Variety of spellings poses a greater problem in the age of online searching than it did before in the courthouse or cemetery. The vast array of resources on the Internet now available to the genealogist poses particular problems for a name like Meacham with its many variants. I became concerned about this problem while searching databases and online documents which did not have the names in alphabetical order. This is the case with a lot of useful material now online, such as documents in prose, early censuses by town/village, inscriptions arranged by year, catalogues, etc. I was aware of quite a number of variant spellings, but new and unexpected forms were appearing with each step into new time and area frames. This concern was heightened significantly by a message from a lady in Taunton, Somerset, England who was helping to look up data on the (claimed) family of the immigrant ancestors for northern and southern US Meachams. I had mentioned Machem and Micham to her as possible alternate spellings. Her response brought up some variants I had not thought of:

"I had a quick check through our local telephone directories and found NO Michem, Macham, Meachon, or Micham. I did find 1 x Machen, 3 x Machin, 3 x Mitcham, 4 x Matchem, and 8 x Meecham."

This prompted me to look into the current US situation. I was stunned. The statistics in the table below were gathered using Yahoo and Netscape search engines on approximately 100 million telephone listings in the US. Surprisingly, all these names are M250 in Soundex except those with "tch" which are M325. Undoubtedly there are more, since the English alphabet has so many combinations with nearly the same sound. There are 600 possible combinations of

M + a,ea,e,ee,i + c,ch,cc,ck,ckh,k,kh,h,s,ss,sh, tch + a,e,i,o,u + m,n.

If one adds other dipthongs such as ai,ie,ei,ay,ey in position 2 and g,gh in position 3 then there are 1400. I tried about 350 combinations, plus a few dipthong combinations which yielded no results. I did not go into the variants with g' such as Megan, Meagum, etc since these are close to Morgan variations ("corruptions" as they used to be called). And I began to tire of reading the telephone directory!

Clearly, there is a very complex linguistic and etymological web relating all these forms, and it would be interesting to see the phenomenon addressed in serious research using census statistics and historical methods -- phD thesis anyone? A quick scan of reference books revealed these major groups based on early surnames recorded in the 12th-14th centuries in England and Ireland:

For 17th century Somerset I have found Machin, Machon, Matcham, Macham, Meacham, Meacher, Meakin, Mechein. Other forms found in England that do not appear in the US, at least among Americans with telephones, are: Mackham and Meacum (but both were present in 17th century Virginia), Meacombe, Meachame, Meachun, Meesham, Metchem, Meetcham, Meccome. There are probably many more.

A few of the US variants listed below are no doubt recently derived from another surname such as Mason (which is related to Machen-Machin in the distant past). Some groups have a separate origin, but considerable over-lap with Meacham variants: the Meehan group is Irish, but its variant Meechan is also a Meacham variant. The Macon-Macken-Mackin and Meekin-Meakin groups also have many derivative forms (eg Mican, Mickan, Mecom and Mecum) shared with the Machin group. A few forms are foreign, judging from the associated forenames : Makan is South Asian, Mishin is Slavic, Mecon and Messin shortened from Italian names.

As I was doing this count, I began to wonder if the number of permutations has actually INCREASED with the spread on general education and partial literacy. At least in previous centuries written records were normally made by supposedly literate people (parish priests, civil servants, etc). Could one reason for the bewildering variety of spellings be the much expanded population and its spread across the American continent? But considering the many spellings already documented in the 11th to 17th centuries in England and the variation found in 17th century Virginia (see below), there seems to be a constant tendency towards spelling variation. Most of the forms listed could indeed be related to Machen/Meacham, or rather, they derive from common ancestors and are constantly interbreeding! I have found examples of Mitcham or Mecum being changed to Meacham, and vice-versa.

In addition to the enormous variety, there were quite a few surprises here, for me at least: the Match__ group, the high numbers for the Mach_n group; the relatively low numbers of Meacheam, Meecham, Meechum, Micham, Mach_m; and the total absence of some, such as Mechom, which is a close phonetic spelling and one I would have thought that semi-literate people would choose. There are some notable absences; the surname of the 1635 immigrant thought (erroneously) to be the ancestor of all southern Meachams, Jo. [John] Machem, did not flourish on American soil! I could only find three instances in online documents: Virginia 1762, Kentucky 1850 and Oregon 1980. The name Machem also occurs as a surname in the Czech Republic and Nigeria.

By the late 17th/early 18th century in Virginia, we find a host of variants:

Maccome		Meacham		Mecham		Micham
Macham		Meachen		Mechan		Michem	
Machen		Meachum		Mechen		Mitchen		
Mackham		Meacon		Mecom		Mitcham
Mackan		Meacom		Mecum
Mackome		Meacome		Meecham
Macomb		Meacum		Meechan
Maham		Meatcham	Meecom
Makin				Meecum
Matham				Meekin
				Meekum
				Mekin
				Meshen
				Metham


The first uses of the spelling "Meacham" that I can find in Virginia were 1690 Joshua Meacham mentioned in a land grant, and 1694 William Meacham baptised in Christ Church parish. It became increasingly common in the 18th century. It remains unclear whether all of the above do indeed overlap, or whether there are separate surnames streams represented. Assuming that they are all variants of the same surname, in the short span of 90 years from 1630 to 1720 we have at least 36 different spellings. So it is perhaps not surprising that we have so many variant spellings today.

From the 350 different spellings which I tested against telephone listings, one can eliminate quite a few which seem to come from other main surname steams. There remain, I estimate, about 120 variants of Machen/Meacham in the US today!

For online database and document searches, there is an obvious problem, to put it mildly. An alphabetical listing and the eye remain the best options. Soundex progammed to consider only capitalized words would be the next best. For ordinary string searches, if the database contains only surnames not in alphabetical order, forenames, and dates but little prose, then the basic strings of MA, ME and MI can be used, but of course this will also find all other names containing that string (Mary, Michael, etc.). It may not prove quicker than a visual scan. If it is prose, or the text contains a lot of ordinary words, then more specific search strings are needed -- a lot more. At least MAC, MAK, MASS, MASH and MATC are needed just to cover the first main group, and many ordinary words (eg machine, massive) will still be found. There is no choice but to choose a few that are closest to the variant being sought, and hope for the best.

A final word: database search can be tricky. It is better to make lots of tries and get lots of negatives or useless hits AND the one you are looking for rather than to miss it. I almost missed the important Macham 1631 reference. I ran searches for the main variants known to have been used in 17th century Virginia, by typing each spelling in full in the search box, e.g. Machem, Mecham, Mechum, Mechen, etc.. Luckily, as I was about to exit, the thought occured to me that, since it was a spelling used in England at the time, there might just be a "Macham." There was.


Number of listings with the following surnames:

MA______

Macam -- 23			Macan -- 73
Macem -- 0			Macen -- 7
Macim -- 0			Macin -- 17
Macom -- 82			Macon -- 2238
Macum -- 1			Macun -- 1


Macham -- 9			Machan -- 129
Machem -- 0			Machen -- 934
Macheam -- 0			Machean -- 1 
Machim -- 1			Machin -- 836
Machom -- 0			Machon -- 117
Machum -- 7			Machun -- 9

Mackam -- 0			Mackan -- 27
Mackem -- 8 			Macken -- 2500+
Mackim -- 6			Mackin -- 2500+
Mackom -- 0			Mackon -- 1
Mackum -- 0			Mackun -- 9

Makam -- 18			Makan -- 17
Makem -- 11			Maken -- 22
Makim -- 13			Makin -- 1565
Makom -- 0			Makon -- 5
Makum -- 1			Makun -- 1

Masham -- 2			Mashan -- 1
Mashem -- 0			Mashen -- 1
Mashim -- 0			Mashin -- 14
Mashom -- 0			Mashon -- 25
Mashum -- 0			Mashun -- 0

Massam -- 12			Massan -- 6
Massem -- 1			Massen -- 50
Massim -- 1			Massin -- 33
Massom -- 10			Masson -- 1398
Massum -- 0			Massun -- 0

Matcham -- 47			Matchan -- 18
Matchem -- 22			Matchen -- 65
Matchim -- 5			Matchin -- 11
Matchom -- 0			Matchon -- 0	
Matchum -- 2			Matchun -- 0

-------------------------------------------------------------------


ME______


Mec_m: Mecom -- 65, Mecum -- 328 	 Mec_n : Mecon -- 1
[all other combinations, e.g. Mecam, Mecem, Mecim, and Mecan, 
Mecen, Mecin, Mecun, are zero] 

Mecham -- 1235			Mechan -- 32	
Mechem -- 151			Mechen --0
Mechim -- 1			Mechin -- 0
Mechom -- 0			Mechon -- 5
Mechum -- 21			Mechun -- 0

Meck_m : Meckem -- 21		Meck_n -- 0

Meh_m -- 0			Meh_n : Mehan -- 31, Mehen -- 2
 
Mek_m : Mekum -- 2		Mek_n : Mekan -- 36, Meken -- 6, Mekin -- 4

Mesh_m : Mesham -- 5	Mesh_n : Meshin -- 2, Meshon -- 20, Meashun -- 1

Messam -- 52			Messan -- 0
Messem -- 1			Messen -- 1
Messim -- 0			Messin -- 16
Messom -- 13			Messon -- 5
Messum -- 0			Messum -- 0

Metch_m -- 0			Metch_n -- 0

--------------------------------------------------------------------


MEA_____

Meac_m -- 0			Meac_n -- 0

Meacham -- 2500+		Meachan -- 9
Meacheam -- 14			Meachean -- 0
Meachem -- 112			Meachen -- 39
Meachim -- 2			Meachin -- 3
Meachom -- 0			Meachon -- 2
Meachum -- 355			Meachun -- 0

Meah_m -- 0			Meah_n : Meahan -- 31, Meahen -- 2 

Meak_m : Meakem -- 30, Meakim -- 46   Meak_n : Meaken -- 4, Meakin -- 236

Meas_m : Measom -- 28		Meas_n : Meason -- 94

Meash_m : Measham -- 3		Meash_n : Meashan -- 1


-------------------------------------------------------------------


MEE_____

Meec_m -- 0			Meec_n -- 0

Meecham -- 23			Meechan -- 172
Meechem -- 0			Meechen -- 0
Meechim -- 0			Meechin -- 4
Meechom -- 0			Meechon -- 5
Meechum -- 3			Meechun -- 0

Meeh_m : Meeham -- 25	Meeh_n: Meehan -- 2500+, Meehen -- 5, Meehin -- 4

Meek_m : Meekam -- 2, Meekum -- 2 ; Meek_n : Meeken -- 11, Meekin -- 1177

Meesh_m -- 0			Meesh_n  -- 0

--------------------------------------------------------------------


MI______

Mic_m : Micum -- 2 ; 	Mic_n : Mican -- 111, Micon -- 20, Micun -- 14

Micham --53			Michan -- 14
Michem -- 2			Michen -- 1
Michim -- 0			Michin -- 3
Michom -- 0			Michon -- 454
Michum -- 7			Michun -- 0

Mickam -- 18			Mickan -- 57
Mickem -- 12			Micken -- 35
Mickim -- 0			Mickin -- 1
Mickom -- 0			Mickon -- 0
Mickum -- 17			Mickun -- 2

Mik_m : Mikam -- 1		Mikan -- 102
				Miken -- 6
				Mikin -- 4
				Mikon -- 3
				Mikun -- 1

Mih_m -- 0			Mihan -- 41, Mihon -- 8, Mihun -- 2

Miss_m -- 0			Missan -- 22
				Missen -- 15
				Missin -- 0
				Misson -- 49
				Missun -- 5

Mish_m -- 0			Mishan -- 41
				Mishen -- 2
				Mishin -- 11
				Mishon -- 4
				Mishun -- 4


Mitcham -- 863			Mitchan -- 17
Mitchem -- 1597			Mitchen -- 65
Mitchim -- 9			Mitchin -- 11
Mitchom -- 14			Mitchon -- 40	
Mitchum -- 1266			Mitchun -- 1


Return to Contents Proceed to next article