3 Things About Names You Need To Know To Trace Your Family Tree

Most of us tracing our family tree get stuck at some point. Surprisingly, even just the names of our ancestors can be particularly troublesome. So, here’s 3 things you need to know about names in order to grow a flourishing family tree!

1. Understand Name Changes & Grow New Branches On Your Family Tree

It’s really easy to become fixated on a name. You’ve found an ancestor and their name is consistent across multiple different records. You should be be able to find their birth registration easily, right?

But you can’t! You’ve expanded the years and the place options. You just can’t find them. You start to wonder if their birth was never registered.

Stop! Consider that maybe, just maybe…you’ve become fixated on their name – and therein lies your mistake.

Name in Family Tree

There are a multitude of reasons why an ancestor might change their name, including:

  • Illegitimate birth, registered under mother’s surname but used father’s surname as an adult
  • Falling out with a parent
  • Always being known by a nickname and starting to use it within official documents
  • Wanting to match surnames with a much loved step-parent
  • Negative associations (e.g. was the same as a notorious murderer) and so they changed it
  • The name changed over time due to misspellings
  • The name changed after immigration in order to make it easier for others to read / pronounce
  • They didn’t like their name (by Nan, Elaine uses her middle name Barbara because she prefers it)
  • In some Jewish traditions – a first name might be changed in order to ‘beat the angel of death’

2. Know Your Naming Traditions & Anticipate Your Ancestors' Next Move

Depending on where and when your ancestor was born they may have used a set naming pattern – for example naming your 1st male child after a paternal grandfather. Or perhaps they were Welsh and used patronymics?

Father and Son

My #TwiceRemoved guest, Caitlin Hollander explained some of the complexities of the Jewish use of patronyms and naming traditions here.

Those of Jewish heritage might also have two names – an Anglican name and a Hebrew name.

In Spanish cultures, a person can receive two surnames – the first surname of their father and mother. Names aren’t necessarily changed upon marriage.

In some Catholic traditions, all children might be given the same first name but a different second name (e.g. Mary-Therese, Mary-Catherine).

Understanding the different traditions can help you to look for naming patterns or to anticipate the names your ancestors may have chosen to use. This can be a powerful tool to tracing your family tree.

3. Is A Spelling Mistake Stunting The Growth Of Your Family Tree?

How many times have you received a letter with your name misspelt? I cannot tell you how often I get post addressed, not to Miss Pithers, but to Mrs Pithers or Ms Pither or Wither, Dither, or Pitter.

red pen

Not only might my surname be misspelt but my marital status has been incorrectly presumed.

Further back in time spellings were far more fluid too – Shakespeare spelt his surname in a multitude of ways and yet I think we can all agree he was highly literate.

Whenever you are struggling to find someone, try to use wildcards to widen your search. For example, rather than search for Pithers, I might hunt for P?th?r*.

A ? means that there is a letter there but you don’t know which one (so in Pithers, using P?thers will mean I am also searching for Pethers, Pothers, Pathers etc)

An asterisk can stand for multiple letters. So a search for Pither* will include finds such as Pithering, Pithers, Pithered.

Depending upon where you are searching, these wildcards may be used in combination with each other. So a search for P?th* will include any combination of P-th surnames, including names that continue after the ‘h’ – such as Pithering. A search for P*t*rs will bring up results like Pitters or Peters.

Further Reading

  • This PDF guide to naming traditions from across the globe, from Albania to Vietname.

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