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Genealogy: What's in a Name?

Pedigree Pitfalls

Never assume that you have the correct person if there are two or more individuals in the same area with the same name. It is necessary to gather the facts for each event they are connected to and make comparisons.

Pedigree Pitfalls

Don't assume that a child's surname-sounding middle name is a surname in your direct line. I once found a child whose name was Diana Courll Drollinger. Courll was not Diana's mother's maiden name, as originally thought. Instead, she was named for her married aunt: Diana Drollinger Courll.

Mother's Name Preserved

A mother's maiden name is frequently used as a middle name for either boys or girls. Other family surnames are used as well. Clark Stone Phillip's middle name is his paternal grandmother's maiden name. Mary Catherine Smith may be shown as Mary C. Smith in a record, but when she married John Jordan, she may be shown as Mary Smith Jordan, or Mary S. Jordan.

If your ancestors were creative, you may have to be creative. Strange things happen in genealogy. For instance, a contemporary family has two girls and two boys. The boys carry their mother's maiden name as their surname because the mother is from a family with no boys and she wants the name to be carried on. The girls have their father's surname.

Given Names Giving Us Trouble

It is not only surname variations that befuddle us, but first names also. Is Katharine Shimmin the same person as Catherine Shimmin? This name could also be spelled Kathryn. First names could also be Anglicized. Katharine may have been Katrina, Katja, Catherina, Katrintje, or Tryntje.

Five Children, Same First Name!

German children often had two given names, but were called by the second. Frequently, all the boys in the family had the same first name, or a variation of the same name, such as Johann/Hans, but were called by their second names. And the girls in the family might all have had the first name Anna or Maria. The children may have been referred to with both names or just the second. Different documents may use different names for the same child. You will wonder if you are dealing with one person or three, as you sort out Maria Elizabeth, Maria Christena, and Maria Caterina. This can be further confused by an adult returning to his or her first given name after being known by a second name as a child.

Today parents-to-be thumb through books of names looking for ideas for the baby's name. Although there have always been trends in first names, your ancestors didn't rely on book lists. They thumbed through the Bible, or they named their children for friends and relatives or famous people. Hundreds of boys went through life carrying the first and middle name of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin.

The romance of the west inspired one set of parents in the naming of their children. Their little girl Sierra Nevada is enumerated as Nevada one time, Sierra another, and on her marriage license she is Vada. As far as can be determined, her parents were never west of Indiana.

He Was Called Billy; She Was Called Abby

Nicknames can throw you off the trail. If you always knew your great-aunt as Polly, you may be surprised to find that her name was really Mary. The Sally in a will may be the Sarah on a deed. William could be Bill, Billy, Will, or Willie. Bert can be a shortened form of Albert, Gilbert, Robert, and others.

Finding the name that the nickname stood for is not always obvious. This is especially true when the nickname is encompassed within a name, such as Gus for Augustus, Gum for Montgomery, or Fate for Lafayette. You may need to do some reading to know what names to look for. A particularly extensive resource is Christine Rose's Nicknames: Past and Present.

Double Trouble

It has been said that everyone has a double, someone else in the world who looks just like him or her. The same thing is true of names. In San Jose, California, a man who had voted regularly for years was cut from the rolls. John P. Taylor called the Registrar of Voters and found that he had been cut because he was listed at two different addresses. The computer matched the John P. Taylors' months, days, and years of birth, found them to be the same, and deleted one from the rolls. But there were actually two different John P. Taylors with the exact same birth date; one was John Paul and one was John Phillip, but they had both registered as John P.

Almost no one has a unique name. Names that are no longer common seem exotic to us, and we think the individuals will be simple to isolate. You may think that Tryphena Atherton should be easy to identify because, to you, the name is unusual. Early Vermont records have several Tryphena Athertons. You may think that the common name of Davis pared with Caleb is unique. In that case, you would be surprised to learn that there are at least four Caleb Davises on the 1840 census in New York.

Your ancestors went by many names, just as we do today. Some have different names at different stages of their lives. Some women change their names when they marry; some do not. Siblings may spell their surnames differently. In some families, one woman may hyphenate her maiden and married names, whereas others may not.

Which Do You Pick?

When you begin to do genealogy research, you have the option of tracing any one of numerous surnames. How do you choose the one you want to work on? For many, this is a personal decision; for others, it is a matter of practicality. I began working on my maiden name because my father would never talk about his family, and I was very curious as to who they were. As I began to gather information from many family sources, I became interested in other lines because I had more information and a better chance of success.

Some may choose a surname to follow because of a family tradition connected with it: “Our family is related to Kit Carson.” “Our family is connected to President McKinley.” Maybe you have a desire to prove you are a Mayflower descendant, or the descendant of a Revolutionary War patriot. Maybe you seek admission to the Sons of the Republic of Texas. Perhaps you are eager to prove that you are a descendant of a Native American, a French trapper, or are eligible for a pioneer descendant certificate offered by many states.

Whatever surname you decide to pursue, one of the first things to do is to consider the different ways the name could be spelled.



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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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