Robert Eller

We tend to think of the last names of people as fixed. Though first names can often be spelled in a number of ways, the “sir” name as it was once called, differentiates one family from another. However, if you ask a genealogist, they will tell you that spelling has evolved over time.

Going back to the first days of European settlement in Catawba County, the pioneers who came here did not have the same names then as their descendants have now. Take for example, Henry Weidener/Weidner. The family line is now known as Whitener. In between, there was Wiedner, Widner, Widener, Vitner, Weydner, Weitner, and Wedener. Since it was German, a translation of the name would have been closest to Hunter in English. Handwriting in census books may have been responsible for some variations but with most heads-of-households having little if any formal education, one family’s spelling could have veered from another, separating the two, even though the variants were as close as brothers.


Photo: A stone commemorating the crossing of the Catawba River by Adam Sherrill’s family and the final resting place of family members.

Henry Weidner is not credited with being the first to cross west of the Catawba River for settlement. He may have been here earlier but some historians assert that he did not put down roots down along Robinson Road, where the gathering spot of the Weidner Oak once grew, until another family arrived permanently in 1747. Weidner was perhaps the first to ramble throughout the area as a hunter, but the distinction of first settlement has gone to the Adam Sherrill family. They forded the Catawba at Sherrill’s Ford, (see what happened there?) and took up residence. The Sherrills were from the British realm (Cornish or Welsh) and their name too had variations, several hundred in fact. Searle, Sorel, Serle are just a few.

Some respellings come from the evolution of the language. Cline, came from what was originally written as Klein. Deal from Diehl with some folks still using the original spelling. Sigmon has been spelled a variety of ways. Especially when families are separated by distance, as when a member moved west and changed a letter or two, a whole new strain of the family name was born. Coming over from the old country, some names changed altogether, with conversion from one language to another. This occurrence was prominent with names that identified the work a person did. The German occupation of Zimmerman became the anglicized as Carpenter. Luckily for folks named Miller (another job related sir name) spelling got easier with letters like ‘h’ and ‘u’ eventually taken out of the word.

Last names were not written in stone. Until an established written record became standard, spellings fluctuated tremendously. Some used the difference to designate a distinct branch of the family. “Oh, that’s them that spell it that way,” was a way for family members to put distance between themselves and the “others” especially if they did not like them for some reason.

Which means that in a world smaller than we know, we are likely more closely related to others than we have previously understood or acknowledged, an interesting, sometimes scary, sometimes fun thought.