Turck, Turk…Durk?

Spelling variations in old records

Durk, Peter [Turck], baptismal record, 1798, detail. “Peter” starts the left column, father “Jacob A. Durk” is at the top of the center column (source). Click to open larger image in new window.

In a previous post, reader Laura Rexroth asked: Why did they spell Peter Turck’s name incorrectly [i.e., Durk] when he was baptized? That’s a great question, and super relevant to successful historical and genealogical research. So let’s talk about the Turck family surname and, by extension, the whole issue of spelling in earlier times and documents.

There are two main issues to keep in mind:
• variations in spelling that existed at the time the source material was created, and
• subsequent misreadings, including incorrect transcription or indexing of sources

Spelling variations in original sources

The main thing to remember is that spelling—of names and many other words—was just not very consistent before the late-1800s or so. This was true for educated folk—as well as those with limited or no schooling—in Europe and North America (and presumably elsewhere). 

So it’s no surprise that the Turck family surname was spelled—by them and various others— Turck and Turk from the mid-17th-century through the 19th-century. More rarely, you will find the name spelled Durk. And since Peter Turck and his kin spoke both an American variant of Dutch as well as English and—it appears—some German, then it’s likely that Turck, Turk and Durk would all sound about the same when spoken in their community (more on this in a moment).

In 1840, Peter Turck was appointed Assistant Marshal to enumerate the federal census for old Washington county, Wisconsin Territory. When he finished, he reported his findings to the Milwaukee county sheriff, and signed his name Turck:

Turck, Peter. Assistant Marshal, certifies 1840 federal census for Washington Co., page 2 of 6, July 7, 1840. Click to open larger image in new window.1

He was also officially—and consistently—recorded as Peter Turck in the published Journal of the second session of the Assembly of the State of Wisconsin, begun and holden at Madison, on the 10th day of January and ending April 2nd, A. D. 1849, D. T. Dickson, State Printer, Madison, 1849.2 But more recent compilations of the names of Wisconsin legislators, such as “Those Who Served: Wisconsin Legislators 1848-2007” from the 2007-2008 Wisconsin Blue Book, lists him as Peter Turek.

Even as late as the mid-19th-century, both Turk and Turck spellings co-exist, often without any apparent reason. Here’s an excerpt from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, city directory for 1863, with listings for Peter Turk and his son James B. Turck. Why the difference: Compiler’s error? Typesetting mistake? Who knows.

Click to open larger image in new window.

Misspellings in transcriptions and indexes

Other variations of Turk, Turck and Durk pop up in original documents and transcribed indexes. One common mis-transcription sees Turck and mis-interprets the curlicues of the cursive lowercase letter c as an e, resulting in Turek. (To add to the confusion, both Turek—and Tureck—are bona fide surnames, found in places like Bohemia, Moravia, and other Central European states, as well as Turck family cities including Chicago and Milwaukee. (As far as I know, the Tureks and Turecks are not related to the Peter Turk/Turck family.)

If you’re looking for Turck in the Ancestry.com database called U.S., Selected States Dutch Reformed Church Membership Records, 1701-1995 (from the archives of the Reformed Church in America, New Brunswick, New Jersey), be sure you also search for the surname Jurk. Quite a few of these records have been mis-transcribed with a J and not the correct T at the beginning of the surname. A quick look at our guide to Kurrent script will show how easy it can be to mistake the two letters. And of course, there are several other kinds of German or Dutch cursive scripts in the 18th- and 19th-centuries; each has it’s particular letter forms, and each will look at least slightly different when written by different individuals.

The variations don’t end there. Not surprisingly, modern indexers often don’t know anything about the families and names that they are indexing. For example, how would you transcribe this family’s surname from the 1860 federal census for Milwaukee, Wisconsin?

Click to open larger image in new window.

Line 34 lists Peter Turck’s son James B. Turck, followed by his wife Sarah A., son Fenton B. and daughter Josephine C. (and a servant named Bridget M. Larkin). If you are looking for Turck, I think you’ll see it. But if you don’t know the surname, you might transcribe it as James B. Turick, as one major online service did.

Ten years later, the same family, still living in Milwaukee, was enumerated as:

Click to open larger image in new window.

Yes, the James B. Turck family has been officially recorded as the James P. Tuerk family; the cursive is as clear as can be. And Tuerk is how this was originally— and appropriately—indexed online.

Another very common mis-reading of a hand-written Turck is Turch. Not a surprise, really. Quite a few florid writers make final letters h and k that are easily confused.

Umlaut or not?

On a few occasions, in the later 1800s and early 1900s, some of the Peter Turk/Turck descendants toyed with a German-inspired variant of their name, spelling it Türck (with an umlaut). This Germanic spelling is, I think, a short-lived affectation, and to my knowledge is never found in the family’s New York documents, circa 1660-1860 and beyond. But some Milwaukee and Chicago descendants did use Türck for a while, and it may be indexed that way for some databases.

And then there’s…Huh?

Sometimes, it’s just really difficult—if not impossible—to read the record accurately. The penmanship may be awful, the original document badly faded, or the microfilm or digital image hopelessly blurry. Or—if you’re really unlucky—all of the above, as in this document:

Baptismal records, circa 1798, image 70 of 645, from The Archives of the Reformed Church in America, New Brunswick, New Jersey; Gallatin Church, Records, Consistory Minutes, Baptisms, 1748-1900, in Ancestry.com, U.S. Dutch Reformed Church Records in Selected States, 1639-1989 [database on-line], accessed January, 2021.. Click to open larger image in new window.

This is the back side of the same page of baptismal records that recorded the baptism of Peter Durk [Turck] (see above, and here). The side of the page with Peter’s baptism was hard enough to decipher. But this back side? Are there any other Turck, Turk, Durk or Jurk baptisms on this page? Your guess is as good as mine.

Postscript: spelling as a clue to dialects and place of origin

It’s possible that spelling variants might give us a clue to the place of origin for certain individuals or families. For example, we’ve seen that Peter Turck’s 1798 baptismal register records the family surname as Durk, and that most other documents spell the family surname as Turk or Turck.

In English (and, I think, most varieties of German and Dutch), Turk and Turck are pronounced exactly the same. The difference between Turk/Turck and Durk is the pronunciation of the initial consonant: T versus D. It’s a mild difference. Both T and D are “plosive” consonants, but T is a “unvoiced consonant” and D is a “voiced consonant.”

Similarly, one of the witnesses to Peter’s baptism is recorded as Balli Knickerbacker. This appears to be the same woman recorded in other sources for other events as Polly Knickerbocker. Once again the two (first) name spellings have different initial letters: the “voiced” B of Balli, versus the “unvoiced” P of Polly. (And Balli/Polly’s surname is spelled with a minor vowel variation: Knickerbacker vs. Knickerbocker.)

It would seem that the Turck family—and/or the Domine (pastor) that recorded Peter’s baptism—had a distinct way of pronouncing words, for example favoring the voiced sounds of B and D over their unvoiced equivalents, P and T.

Readers: do any of you know enough about German, Low German, or Dutch languages and dialects to shed more light on this? I don’t know enough to go farther on this path, but analyzing pronunciation shifts like this might lead to useful clues when, for example, you’re not sure if your ancestor or their neighbors were originally from the western Netherlands, the Rhineland Palatinate, the northern flatlands of Groningen or East Frisia, or somewhere else in the German or Dutch states.3

Final thought4

This may be not be news to experienced researchers, but it’s always a good idea to think like a bad speller and search for your subject with as many variant spellings and wild cards as you can create. (And try those wildcards at the beginnings, middles, and ends of the names, too.) With luck and imagination you’ll have much more success in finding your elusive records.

Stay safe. Be well.


  1. Transcribed, this reads:
    I herby [sic] certify that the number of free white persons within my division, appears in this & the two accompanying schedules subscribed [i.e., signed below] by me this 7th day of July in the year one thousand eight Hundred and forty. Peter Turck } Assistant
  2. The proceedings of the 1849 legislature provide interesting insights into early Wisconsin politics and Peter Turck’s activities as a legislator. You can access your own free pdf of the original book at Hathi Trust Digital Library.
  3. This is a real issue when sorting through various Turk/Turck families in the Hudson River valley during the Colonial and early Federal periods. Peter Turck’s Dutch ancestors came from the Netherlands as early as 1660, settling first on Manhattan Island, and moving later to the Hudson River valley. The next wave of Turcks arrived in 1710. These were the so-called “Palatines,” originally from the German-speaking Rhineland Palatinate. Trying to sort out these families and communities can get pretty confusing, to say the least.
  4. My final, final thought is that “Turck, Turk…Durk” would be a great game for our young visitors to play at the next Clark House History Days. It’s “Duck, Duck…Goose,” but with a Clark House history twist.

5 thoughts on “Turck, Turk…Durk?

  1. Say, what are all the notations behind James B. Turck’s listing in the Milwaukee Directory? His dad simply has a house number and street name next to his name.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A fine question! And a good example of how much information is buried in these 19th-century city directories.

      This directory has a list of abbreviations near the front of the book, which I didn’t include in today’s post. “Translated,” the listing for James B. Turck reads:

      Turck, James B., bookkeeper [at] Page & Crosby’s [business], home on the south side of Pleasant, between Marshall and Astor [streets].

      If you look elsewhere in the directory, you’ll find that Page & Crosby were wholesale boot & shoe dealers located at 147 East Water street, Milwaukee. For more on all this—including a map locating the homes of Peter Turck (living with Mary Turck Clark) and James Turck—see my earlier post “Clarks and Turcks, 1863” at https://jchmhistorian.com/2020/08/05/clarks-and-turcks-1863/

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The German Umlaut is a printer’s convention to represent the letter e appended to a vowel to represent an altered pronunciation. Thus ü is the equivalent of ue and modern Germans recognize such spellings rendered on a non-German keyboard. So the spelling Tuerk is equivalent to Türk, though this seems a surprising affectation, since die Türkei is the country Turkey, and its inhabitants are Türken.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading, and for the comments.

      You are correct about the German umlaut-over-letter-u (ü) representing the letters “ue,” and how modern, digital-era German usage favors the written “ue” over the symbol+letter ü.

      My completely unscientific, anecdotal impression, after looking at hundreds of pages of 19th-century censuses and other records, is that census enumerators, pastors, and other record makers were not shy about using umlauts, whether in the form of a pair of dots or short vertical strokes, or the curving, little swoop shapes that were used in some cursive hands, such as Kurrent.

      For example, in the 1798 baptismal record for Peter Durk/Turck (above), his birth month of März (March) is clearly written with umlaut.

      My (also unscientific) impression is that intentionally writing out “Tuerk” to represent Türk” is not a common practice, but not impossible. The fact that it happened to James B. Turck’s family is relevant, too, as the only times I’ve seen members of the Peter Turck family use the umlaut form of their surname (i.e., Türck), was (very rarely) by James B. Turck’s daughter Josephine Turck, and later her daughter, Roschen Turck Baker. But even they usually spelled the name Turck, with a plain letter u. (I’m still not sure how the 1870 enumerator changed James’s middle initial to “P” from “B.” Easy to mis-hear, I suppose.)

      And, yes, there is also speculation that the Turk/Turck surname is, in fact, derived from the family having some kind of ancient origins in Asia Minor. I have not spent a lot of time on this; perhaps there is something to it. But so far, I have only found anecdotal assertions that link the family to that part of the world. We know that Peter Turck’s immigrant ancestor was born in The Hague, emigrated to New Holland (i.e., New York) and was living in the future New York City as early as 1660 or so, and that he may have had at least several generations of ancestors living in the Netherlands before that.

      But the Netherlands were a hub of international trade and commerce and some Turkish people must have ended up there by the 17th-century. On the other hand, I’ve seen surname dictionaries that indicate the name may also be attached to a dark or swarthy person that looked “like a Turk,”etc.
      And while the Turk/Turck surname is relatively rare, it is found—among other places—in many parts of Western Europe and in the UK. Anyone care to investigate this further?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Monday: Map Day! – The Erie Canal | Clark House Historian

Comments are closed.