Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Jerkins/Judkins Conundrum

There is no question that, in at least some records, our Jerkins were listed as Judkins. For example, in a 1784 property deed recorded in Halifax County, North Carolina, Zachariah Jerkins is identified as Zachariah Jurkins at one place in the document and as Zachariah Judkins in another place in the same document.  When we first came across this, we dismissed it as the simple kind of spelling error that is frequently encountered in old records. Some clerk, we thought, simply made a spelling mistake.

As we continued to research, however, we also found Zachariah and several of his sons referred to as Judkins in additional records and in other locations.  Zachariah appears as a Judkins in some tax and court records in Hancock County, Georgia, for example, and is shown as a Judkins on the 1820 Federal Census of Hancock County.  And when old Zack's son, Zachariah Jerkins, Jr., married Martha Faision in 1822, he was recorded in the Hancock County marriage books as Zachariah Judkins. Nine years later, in 1831, when he filed for divorce from Martha in Leon County, Florida, he did it as Zachariah Jerkins (Wouldn't a modern lawyer love that case?). Likewise, old Zack's son Richard was named as a Jerkins in his uncle Richard Sassnet's 1810 will, but was called Richard Judkins in several newspaper legal notices stemming from that will. 

Furthermore, as we expanded our research across North Carolina and Virginia, we began to find that from the late 1600's until about 1850, many men thought of as Judkins by their modern descendants were frequently listed in the early records as Jerkins.  William Judkins, originally of Surry County, Virginia, was frequently listed as William Jerkins in the property and militia records of Granville County, NC.  Edmund and Gray Judkins of Beaufort County, NC were identified as Jerkins in the 1800 Census, Judkins in the 1810 Census, and as Jerkins again in 1820.  Charles Judkins of Edgecombe County, NC had the same thing happen to him in the census, and he was named as a Jerkins in his father-in-law's will.  A truly interesting note is that all of the Judkins listed as Jerkins in North Carolina appear to stem from the offspring of Robert Judkins and Samuel Judkins, the sons of Samuel Judkins of VA (considered by modern Judkins researchers to be the founder of the southern Judkins branch). Robert and Samuel Judkins are the same men who were named as Robert Jerkins and Samuel Jerkins who received a 200 acre head bounty land grant in Surry County, Virginia on 20 April 1685 for transporting 4 people into the County and were identified as Robert and Samuel Judkins when they sold it less than a year later.

Why did this happen? The most likely answer appears to be the same old phonetic spelling that  turned old country names like Creapeaux into Crappo - the spelling of the name just as it sounds. This obviously was a result of how the names were pronounced. When the clerks wrote a Judkins' name down as Jerkins, he was clearly hearing an "R" sound being pronounced. Likewise, when a Jerkins was recorded as a Judkins, a "D" sound was being heard in the pronunciation of the name.

Further evidence of this phenomenon was recorded in a small article in the October, 1999 issue of the Judkins Family Journal, the official quarterly magazine of the Judkins Family Association. The story related how a New England woman named Susan Judkins who died in 1844 insisted that her name be spelled JURDKINS on her tombstone, despite the fact that the town records listed her, her parents, and all of her siblings as Judkins. In the introduction to the article, the editor of the Judkins Journal asked "What was wrong with these people? Did they sometimes forget who they were?" The answer is no, they never forgot who they were. I suspect, however, that we often do forget who they were.

These ancestors were English, and when they came to this country they brought their accents with them. It seems clear to me that when Susan Judkins insisted that her name be put on her stone as Jurdkins, she was just asking that her name be written the way that she had heard it said her entire life. Our early American ancestors - both Judkins and Jerkins - obviously pronounced the name pretty much as she spelled it. I am reminded of an Englishman that I knew many years ago when I was in the Army. One of the oddities of his accent was that he intruded the letter "r" into words that didn't actually contain an "r". After all of these years, the most memorable example is that he pronounced the word yes as "yurse". I wish that I could remember what part of England he was from.

It is our belief that the Judkins and Jerkins may very well come from a common source and may have once been the same family.  A quick search of the early English records, shows more early Judkins records than Jerkins with the early Judkins showing up in Warwick County, England in the 1540's. The first Jerkins show up in about 1570, and are common by 1615.  By that time, the Judkins and Jerkins appear in the same counties:Northampton, London, Lincoln.

The Jerkins/Judkins riddle raises some fascinating questions, and is certainly worthy of more study.


  1. Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "Back to the Homeplace"
    and "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  2. I love your story about the family name spellings. I have a similar problem with the German last name of Geiβler. There are so many spellings for that in American English, that's really hard to trace the family. And I don't think we all say the name correctly on this side of the ocean. Thanks for sharing your story.