What’s in a Name? the genealogy name game
Names can be both fascinating and confusing aspects of genealogy. Most of my experience is with the United States, but any country or culture will have their own distinct naming patterns. Names are typically what you will use to find records. The stranger the name, the easier the hunt should be (assuming the census recorder can understand it). One of the best things a name can do is to help give you information about where it came from. Traditionally, people often named their children after other family members. Recognizing these patterns can be helpful in knowing if you found the right individual or in beginning to find other ancestral surnames. For example, one of my great-great-great grandfathers was named Daniel Wilson Holman (1832-1885). Daniel is also his great-grandfather’s name, and Wilson comes from his maternal grandmother. These similarities help me know I am probably going down the right path.
Names also present a variety of challenges in locating and matching records. People change them, or use various parts of them throughout their lifetimes. Some people even went by names that were not really their names at all. I have a 4x great-grandfather who, after reportedly surviving a shootout related to some counterfeiting, moved to Alabama and changed his name to James Brown (1810-1905). He obviously did not consider that such a common name would be difficult for his offspring to research 170 years later or that we might like to know his original name. Most people switch names under less unusual circumstances. Here are a few things to watch for in what I like to call the Genealogy Name Game:
Shortened names: Many people go by shortened versions of their names. My name is Matthew, but on many records, I am Matt. Even more confusingly, many relatives (especially in past centuries when the world was a smaller place) will just use their initials on documents. My great-grandmother (who dropped her own first name) had a brother named L.D. Aitkens (1905-1981). On the family Bible’s birth page, he is just L.D. The same goes for the 1910, 1930, and 1940 censuses as well as his social security death record and tombstone. If L.D. stood for something, he obviously did not want me to find out. This link has some great hints on shortened names and nicknames.
Nicknames: At least shortened names and initials give you a hint at what the original name is, but a nickname is just a made up phrase applied to someone. Most people in the tree called Bud, Bubba, Junior, or Sissy have a real name. Good luck finding it! My wife’s great-grandmother had a brother-in-law named Thomas Andrew Dooley (1880-1978). On various records, he is T.A. Dooley, Tom Dooley, Thomas Dooley, or Thomas A. Dooley. If you go interview some of the old-timers who remember him in the community, they have no idea who Thomas Dooley is. They knew him as Swilin. Family tree research is hard…
Middle names: Many people go by their middle names, and you never know it until you see their obituary or begin researching their tree. Men who grow up with their father’s name often go by the middle name.
Surname changes: Married women often change their names, and this makes finding their parents much more difficult. Children may change their surnames to that of a specific parent or step parent. Some people alter the spelling of their surname to distinguish themselves from other family members or because they do not know better. My wife’s grandmother was a Newsom, but she had brothers who went by Newsome and Newson.
Enough reading. Time for pictures!