A Schifflette Story: One Common Name ? Seven Different Spellings

By Martin Cizmar
Daily News Record DNRonline
Woodstock VA
Feb. 19, 2006

Two F?s and one T. One F and two T?s. Two T?s and two F?s. Two F?s and two T?s plus a C. One F and one T. Two F?s and two T?s but two I?s and no E. Two F?s and two T?s and an extra E at the end.

There sure are a lot of ways to spell ? ummm ? that name. And there sure are a lot of people with that name in the area.

In fact, there are 544 listings for Shifflett, Shiflett, Schifflett, Shifflet, Shifflitt, Shifflette and Shiflet in the Harrisonburg phone book according to Verizon?s Vanessa Banks. That compares to 549 Smiths and 537 Millers.

The most common spelling is Shifflett ? so that?s what we?re using to mean Shiffletts in all the different spellings for the rest of the article. This is only to make this story readable, so don?t you Shifflets and Shiflets feel left out.

But where?d the name come from? Why are there so many spellings? What?s the original spelling? Are all the Shiffletts related or not?

As it turns out, there aren?t firm answers to any of these questions. And what we do know for sure ? and it isn?t much ? isn?t unique to the Shiffletts.

Spelling Changes Can Be Coded

A genealogy researcher might spell all the variations of Shifflett the same way: S143. That?s the name in soundex, one of several codes used to get the spellings of Shifflett, and Shiflett and Schifflett to match in genealogy research.

Gordon Miller, retired librarian at James Madison University, says the codes were developed by genealogists back when it was tough to index information. With computers that can do a search in a fraction of a second, codes are less important so they?re fading away, he said.

The codes were important because the vast majority of surnames have changed spelling over the years, he said.

People either didn?t care how their name was spelled or couldn?t spell it, he said.

That had nothing to do with the Shiffletts: Almost everyone in America was illiterate back in the country?s early days.

"A lot of people couldn?t spell their names so they signed with an X," he said. "That?s true of everyone?s ancestors. We?re all in the same boat."

While Miller says most surnames come from physical characteristics, geography or profession, he doesn?t know how Shifflett came about.

And as for what country the name originated in, Miller has no idea. It sounds German or French to him, but it could also be English.

On Kids Creek

Julia Shiflett Crosswell, who runs the shifletfamily.org genealogy site, says Shifflett is probably English or French. She doesn?t think it has any meaning.

Crosswell, who didn?t grow up in the Valley and lives in Texas, has traced the name back to 1683, when she says a Shiflett sailed from England to America

Two more Shiffletts sailed over shortly after that: Stephen Siflett in 1702 and Jon Shiflett in 1712. Stephen Siflett, as his name was written on the ship?s documents, disappeared once he got to America. But a Stephen Shiflett appeared in the New World at the same time, leading some to think "Siflett" was a misspelling.

Those dates ? 1702 and 1712 ? contradict rumors Crosswell has heard about the Shiffletts. She?s heard people say that they were German mercenaries brought over to fight the Americans in the Revolutionary War and that they were brought to work on Thomas Jefferson?s house.

"They were over here long before that," she said. "People say nasty things. Even things that have been published have gotten it wrong."

According to Crosswell?s research, the Shiffletts got a foothold in the Blue Ridge when John Shiflet bought 120 acres in Albemarle County on Kids Creek.

When the Shiffletts crossed the Blue Ridge is a little harder to pin down.

There weren?t any Shiffletts in Rockingham County in 1787, according to the census kept by the Harrisonburg Rockingham County Historical Society, but by the early 1800s, Crosswell has records of Shifflets who owned land in Rockingham County.

The reason there are so many spellings of the name is that county clerks wrote the name down differently, she said.

And although there?s some controversy over whether all the various Shiffletts are related, Crosswell is "absolutely" sure they?re all bound by blood.

DNA Can Change Genealogy

As it turns out, we could determine if the Shiffletts are all related using DNA.

Family Tree DNA, a Houston-based company that does DNA testing for genealogy research, is doing similar research on more than 2,600 surnames.

Surnames didn?t even begin to become permanent in most of the world until a few hundred years ago. Even then, people didn?t know how to spell them.

"Since the DNA didn?t change when the surname changed, we were able to find them," said Eileen Krause, an analyst for the company.

The company, which bills itself as America?s first and biggest DNA-based genealogy research company, can take a cheek swab and determine whether two people are related several generations back.

They have several levels of tests, ranging in cost from $99 to $219.

The tests have their limits, Krause said, but are sought after by people who hit a brick wall when they?re filling out their family tree.

"We can?t tell if Uncle John really did visit Alabama on the way to California but we can tell if two people are related," she said.

There?s no Shifflett project yet, and if one gets started it won?t be by Crosswell.

"I already know I?m related to them all," she said. "I don?t need a test."

Maybe They Were Sailors

Anne Frysinger Shifflet also thinks the Shiffletts are all related.

"But they?ll swear they aren?t," she says.

Her husband, Ken, thinks so too: "One clan won?t have anything to do with the others."

Frysinger, a retired University of Maryland professor, has written a book with a little Shifflett genealogy in her book "Of Time and Place: A Shifflett-Morris Saga," which tells of how the government took her husband?s family land for Shenandoah National Park.

Based on Frysinger?s research, it seems that the Shiffletts first came to the Richmond area in the early 1700s and worked as indentured servants until they earned their freedom.

This was a common way of getting over to the New World, Frysinger said. A landowner would pay to bring over people to farm his land. After working for him for five years or so, the servant would be free to move on.

"Then they?d work a little more until they?d made the money to buy their own land," she said.

Her theory is that the Shifflett ancestors lived on the border between France and Germany, then moved to England before coming to the United States. European records mention variations of the name, she said.

Frysinger also has a theory about the origin of the name: she thinks it comes from the German word "Schiff," which means boat. She knows the first Shiffletts came over from England, where she thinks they may have emigrated from towns along the German-French border.

"They didn?t grow up naming their kids Jacque and Pierre, they were quite English before they came to America," she said.

As for the various spellings, she thinks it has to do with how the clerks wrote them down.

"It was not a high priority to get things spelled right," she said.

Her husband Ken is a good example: His parents and his older brothers spelled their names with two T?s, while he uses just one.

Different clerks spelled them differently, he said, and he kept it that way.

"It?s not like the families sat down and decided I?m going to do it this way," he said.

Contact Martin Cizmar at 574-6277 or mcizmar@dnronline.com