The Name Game

The following article is from the Ancestry Daily News and is (c) MyFamily.Com. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the Ancestry Daily News is available at Ancestry

The Last Name Game

Names create significant problems for genealogists. This week we focus on the last name used by our 
ancestor and how that name appears in various records. Our discussion is not meant to be entirely 
comprehensive but rather to motivate the genealogist to realize that last names might not be as simple 
as they seem. When family historians begin crossing linguistic, time, or cultural borders, assumptions 
about last names might need to be changed. 

We begin simply... with how names are listed in records. 

Spelling and Phonetic Variants
Today it usually is necessary to have our last name spelled consistently on documents, especially 
employment, medical, credit, and legal records. This was not always the case. Society has not always 
been as literate or as data driven as it is today. Your ancestor in 1850 might not have cared how his name 
was spelled on the deed that gave him title to his farm. Your ancestor might not have been able to read the 
deed anyway and most certainly was not concerned about the records of another man a thousand miles 
away getting confused with his own. 

The way your ancestor pronounced his name and the way the clerk heard that pronunciation could have 
significantly impacted how the clerk wrote the name. A clerk with perfect penmanship may still spell your 
ancestor's surname wrong because of how it was said and how he heard it. My German ancestor most 
likely pronounced his last name “Behrens” in a way that it sounded like “Barnes” to non-German speakers. 
Small wonder that he is recorded as Ulfert Barnes in several records. Even English speakers can have this 
problem. Learning how your ancestor was likely to have pronounced his name may provide you with 
additional variants. 

-Did Gibbs get pronounced as Gebbs?
-Is Gerrit confused with Jerrit?
-Is Gibson confused with Gepson? 

In one of my previous columns, “Do You Ear What I Ear?” I discuss sounds in more detail.

Handwriting Variants
Did the clerk have sloppy or extra-fancy handwriting? Is the ink faded and difficult to read? If so, it may be 
very easy to interpret a letter in more than one way. 

- A “u” is misread as an “n.” 
This is how Trautvetter becomes Trantvetter.

- A “P” is misread as a “B.” 
This is how Pierce becomes Bierce.

- An “f” is misread as an “l.” 
This is how Ufkes becomes Ulkes.

- An “S” get misread as an “L.” 
This is how Sargent becomes Largent. 

Misreadings such as these are very reasonable and could easily explain a variant in your ancestor's last 
name. Watching for these variants becomes even more important when textual indexes and other finding 
aids are being used instead of images of the actual record. 

Surname Versus Last Name
A surname is typically passed from father to child and is usually shared by children from the same father 
(although there are exceptions). However, not all areas have always practiced this custom. One major 
exception is the use of patronymics, which is the derivation of a last name from the first name of the father. 
It was practiced in many areas of Europe for extended periods of time. While many last names are 
patronymical in origin (Wilson and Johnson, for example), some areas of Europe continued this practice 
long after other areas had begun passing the same last name from father to child. 

Regular readers of this column have seen patronymics before. Our recent series on Swedish records 
brought the system to light. At the risk of oversimplifying, in this system, a man named Lars Andersson 
will have sons with the last name Larsson and daughters with the last name Larssdotter. Other areas of 
Scandinavia had similar systems. Here are a few links with additional information on other parts of Europe. 

Danish Patronymics
Russian Patronymics
Swedish Patronymics
Welsh Patronymics

Regular readers will know that my ancestry is one-half Ostfriesen. Ostfriesland, a small ethnic area of 
modern-day northern Germany also practiced patronymics officially until the early nineteenth century. In 
this area, “n” or “sen” was commonly added to form the new last name. A man with the first name Jann 
would have children with the last name Janssen. A couple of examples: 

Habbe Habben was the father of Lubbe Habben who was the father of Habbe Lubben who was the father of 
Pabe Habben who was the father of Habbe Paben, etc. 

Egge Frederichs was the father of Ulfert Eggen who was the father of Hinrich Ulfers, etc. 

Of course there were exceptions. In some families there might be children with several different last names. 
It is important to remember that in some cases, patronymics was based on custom and not on law—
consequently there is not one hundred percent consistency in how the system is used. It is those families 
that fall outside the typical usage patterns that cause difficulty. 

Changing Last Names 
There are time periods and locations where surnames were not even constant for one person throughout his 
life. In some areas of Germany it was not unheard of for a man to take his wife's last name upon marriage if 
he would be farming her family's farm. As we have seen in earlier columns, members of the Swedish military 
would take a different surname upon their enlistment. Some would take the surname of the farm upon which 
they were living. These changes may or may not be documented in civil or church records. It is worth noting 
that these changes are more likely to take place during a time when last names are not passed down from 
father to child. In many areas, patronymics are no longer practiced and laws might have been created to 
abolish the practice. 

It is not just foreign countries where last names for a person may change. In the United States the reasons 
typically revolve around the marital relationships of the parents. The children of a widowed mother may take 
their stepfather's surname as their own, regardless of whether or not there was any formalized adoption. 

What Does All This Mean 
for The Genealogist?
Our discussion points out that it is extremely important to learn: 

- How the last name for a child was determined in that ancestor's place and time period;
- About the language the ancestor likely spoke, particularly how the last name was probably pronounced; 
- About the history of the area where the ancestor lived. 

Some links to help you: 

- The Research Guides available at the Family History Library website

- Appropriate mailing lists at RootsWeb

- Regionally appropriate online research guides, typically accessible through the country specific section 
of Cyndislist

- Printed materials and how-to guides—usually referenced in the Research Guides from the Family History 
Library, mentioned on the mailing lists, or referenced in pages located on Cyndislist. 

In summary, as far as last names are concerned, your ancestor might have had the same one as his father 
or his stepfather. He may have even had different last names at different points in his life. Who said research 
was easy? 

The Given Name Game

Last week's column focused on last names. This week we look at the names before the last name, typically 
referred to as given names. Like last week, we are concentrating on why these names may appear 
inconsistently in records, not the origin of the name itself. 

It is worth noting that not everyone has a second given name, typically referred to as a “middle name.” My 
wife's great-grandfather on his World War II draft registration card is listed as Henry None Mortier. I 
somehow doubt his middle name was “None.” 

Handwriting and Phonetic Difficulties 
Last week's piece discussed how writing and speaking can create records problems. We will not repeat 
that discussion here. Those who missed last week's column can read it too. 

This week, we'll take a look at some of the problems we may encounter with given names. A couple of 
illustrations from the 1880 census will serve to make the point. 

Altje Schuster is enumerated as Attea in the 1880 census.
Altje Smith is enumerated as Ohthie Smith in the 1880 census. 

Diminutives typically contain at least one sound from the original name and are usually (but not always) 
shortened versions of the original name. Will, Bill or Billy for William and Tom or Tommy for Thomas are 
fairly standard. Some diminutives are not as obvious to modern ears, such as Sally for Sarah. 

Additional examples: 

Margaret- Maggie, Marge, Peggy, etc.
Minerva- Minnie
Elizabeth- Eliza, Liza, Beth, Betty, etc.
Amelia- Millie
Sarah- Sally, Sadie, etc. 

There are countless others. A diminutive name in one family may actually be a given name in another. 
And a person who is known as “Minnie” may not necessarily have a “real name” of Minerva (my great aunt 
Minnie was actually Wilhelmina). 

Census records may list a person with their “real” name once and with a diminutive ten years later. It pays 
to compare ages and as many records as possible to reduce the chance that you conclude that a couple 
had more children than they actually did. A 16-year-old Nellie in 1870 may be the same as the 5-year-old 
Helen in 1860. 

While it doesn't happen often, there are families where potential diminutives can cause other problems. 
Archibald and Lucinda Kile, Illinois settlers in the 1840s, had a daughter Lucinda and a daughter Lucina. 
Initially, I had thought one was simply a misspelling of the other, but they were two separate individuals 
(each with her own husband and family). Both could have easily used Lucy as a diminutive and left me very 
confused. There are diminutives that are somewhat standard, but there are always exceptions and 
occasionally regional variations. 

Nicknames are different. These additional names are frequently based upon some type of personal 
characteristic, such as hair color, body size, or height. Or, they may come about for virtually any reason 
and have no connection that would be reasonably made (Yogi Berra's given name is actually Lawrence Peter). 
Since these names are not tied to the actual name, they are more problematic than diminutives. The good 
thing is that nicknames are less likely to be used in official records than are diminutives. However, there are 
always exceptions. 

In American records, the most frequent translation of a name is into the English language. Some of these 
conversions are pretty standard: 

Guillame becomes William
Andre becomes Andrew
Anders becomes Andrew
Juan becomes John
Francisco becomes Frank
Cesarine becomes Sarah 

There are numerous others. Names that do not readily translate are more problematic. An Altje may be 
listed as a Ollie in one census and as Alice in another. Names that do not translate are more likely to be 
anglicized to whatever sounds “close.” 

Here too, problems can be created by names that are different in the native language, but similar in sound. 
Garrelt and Feke Fecht had eight children born in Ostfriesland, Germany, between 1853 and 1873, including 
an Antke, an Anna, and an Antje. Fortunately only one of these individuals immigrated to America, as the 
names Antke and Antje are all frequently Anglicized to Anna. 

Depending upon the time period, there might be records clearly explaining the Anglicization of the first name. 
My ancestor Jann Habben is listed in records as Jann or John. The executor of his estate explained to the 
probate judge that Jann used both names in official records. The 1930s naturalization for Panagiotis Verikios 
in Chicago indicates that he wanted to formally change his first name to Peter. 

Non-English Conversions 
Keep in mind that depending upon where your ancestor lived, Anglicization might not have been the problem. 
Did your Spanish ancestor Juan move to an area settled by mostly French speakers? If so, he might have 
become Jean instead of John. Those researching in areas of Europe that are multi-lingual encounter this 
problem frequently. My wife's Belgian ancestor might be listed under the Latin form of their name on their 
christening record, the French form on their marriage record, and the Dutch form on their entry in the burial 

Christening Names 
Did your ancestor have a name at his christening that he never used again during his life, or one that he only 
used on official records? Was there a middle name that he used more often? He might not have even used 
his original given name after his immigration to the United States. 

All Had the Same First Name?
In some areas of Germany it was common practice to give all the sons the same first name and change the 
middle names. The middle names would be the names the individuals went by in everyday life, but the “real” 
names would be used in official records. 

Reused Names
Many repeated names within a family were due to one child passing away at an early age. Reenste Amelings 
was born in Aurich-Oldenforf, Germany in 1772. She had three older siblings with the same name (each older 
sibling died before the next child was given the same name). 

There are also less frequent situations where a name was used twice even though the first child did not die. 
As always, searching as many records as possible is excellent advice. 

Could Not Decide Which Name?
My ancestor John Michael Trautvetter is listed in various records in the United States as: 

Jahn (the German form of his first name)

If it seems that an alternate given name is the cause of your research brick wall, it is imperative that names, 
ages, and dates from as many possible records be compared. If the diminutive is somewhat nonstandard, 
this is even more crucial. It is also possible that what you think are two names for the same person are 
actually names for two separate people. 

My Kentucky pioneer ancestor Sarah Sledd is named in several records after her husband's 1814 death. 
Sometimes she is Sally and sometimes she is Sarah. It takes putting all the records together, creating a 
chronology, looking at other family members with similar name, and thinking about the locations involved 
to determine that the Sally Sledd and Sarah Sledd I encountered in the records are one person and not two. 

Is your ancestor hiding under a different first name? Keep these pointers in mind:

- Check out lists of common diminutives and nicknames. 
- Determine how names from the ethnic area of origin were anglicized.
- Research as many records as possible.
- Make certain there are not two people with similar names.
- Clearly explain why you think the people with different names are actually the same person. 

If only they had used ONE name their entire life, it would have made things so much easier.

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