As you begin researching your ancestors you will soon encounter various spellings of Murphree; Murfree, Murphrey, Murphrie and others, all pronounced Mur-free, although the emphasis is on MUR-free. There is little argument that the Murphree surname is a derivative of Murphy or O’Murphy, one of the most common names in Ireland. Although it is yet unproven, family historians have repeated the claim for years that our ancestors immigrated to America from Dublin, Ireland. If you attempt to trace back to the origins of the Murphy surname in Ireland you will encounter a similar situation. Researching early Irish records you will find the roots of the Murphy surname evolving from Muirchu, Murchad, O'Murchad, or other spellings, all being the personal name of a famous sea warrior from Irish folk lore. For more than two thousand years, Ireland has been a tribal society. The Murphrees are inheritors of the tradition of a warrior aristocracy.
The mistake some amateur researchers make is assuming that if a name is not spelled in a certain way it cannot belong to the same family. Researchers with these ideas will pass over important genealogical records because the name happens to be spelled Murphy or Murfree instead of Murphree. Be especially careful of this when various spellings are found in the same geographic area.
Because of spelling problems, we need to be extremely careful when using indexes. It is very easy to overlook the less logical possibilities and therefore miss many valuable records. For example, I was trying to find my third great maternal grandfather, Joseph Looper, in an index to South Carolina census records. I was puzzled because I could not find a listing for him where I knew he should be. I had seen the name spelled phonetically as Luper, so I looked for Lupers with no luck. I noticed that, in this census takers handwriting, his capital "L" looked like a capital "S." You guessed it, that's where I found him, listed as Joseph Super! The census taker wrote "Luper" for "Looper" and the index abstractor wrote "Super" for "Luper." Remember to consider every possible spelling of a name when using any index.
For enquire, I pray thee, of the former age, and prepare thyself to search for their fathers. Job; 8:8
One of the most persistent family legends as to the origin of the Murphree name is the one about the four Irish Murphy brothers who had fought to prominence in one of the early battles with the British. Unfortunately the battle was lost and the four brothers supposedly fled to the colonies to avoid retribution. Once they arrived in America they felt that they were, at last, free from British oppression. It is said they changed the spelling of Murphy to Murfree to celebrate this freedom. As the story goes, the four brothers each took on a different spelling for their surname, all designating their declaration of freedom and to gain a measure of anonymity in the British colonies. These spellings, allegedly, were Murfree, Murphree, Murphrey and Murfrey.
While this makes for a bit of storytelling fun it is all probably fanciful folk lore as no proof has been, or is likely to be discovered, one way or the other. If you go back just 100 years you will find that a large percentage of the population could not read or write. Those who could write did not concern themselves with standardized spellings but spelled words just as they sounded, phonetically, with local accents. I have seen names spelled differently on the same document, in the same handwriting, sometimes even by the individual himself.
Our earliest proven ancestor, Daniel Murphree, spelled his name "Murphree" in probably his own handwriting on his will in 1769. Daniel's descendants, except for a few deliberate exceptions, continue to use that spelling until this date. But, it is important to remember that when you enthusiastic researchers are sorting through old records looking for your Murphree ancestors, don't forget to consider all possible spellings. Good Hunting!