Ancestors in the Records:
What’s in a Name? A Closer Look at Family Surnames
Our names are the most basic piece of information we have about our families. They provide us with a connection to the past and a sense of identity. Names, particularly surnames, also supply us with important clues to tracing our families. But, without an understanding of the name changes and naming practices in different countries and circumstances, they can also add confusion to our quest to find and understand our families.
Yet, recognizing your ancestors’ names in the records isn’t always as easy as it might seem at first. Throughout history, names have undergone a variety of changes. These changes may have only altered surnames slightly from generation to generation or may have changed them dramatically in a matter of days. Name changes during emigration, phonetic spellings, the patronymic naming systems, and other practices may make our family names almost unrecognizable. However, some background information on name changes and practices can help you more clearly identity your family names.
Emigrant Name Changes
Many foreign family names underwent significant changes when people entered this country. Perhaps most commonly, alterations occurred in the spelling of the name. Sometimes emigrants deliberately Americanized their foreign-sounding names by shortening them or changing their spelling. Andronovich may have become simply Andron, for instance. Emigrants did this in order to assimilate better and avoid discrimination that might occur when their names made their cultural heritages immediately obvious. Other spelling changes took place because of error. People keeping records in the U.S. such as on the ship or at the port may have accidentally misspelled the names. Sometimes the emigrants kept the new spellings.
Other times, emigrants adopted completely new names. Some people chose to use a translated form of their name if the surname had meaning. For example, an ancestor in the U.S. with the surname of Black may have had the German surname of Schwarz (which translates to mean black). The German name Klein could become Small. In a few cases, emigrants took on new names completely unrelated to their original names. This could happen at the encouragement of officials in their country of origin or in the U.S. who felt that their original name was too common. These people were free then to choose any name they wanted. Other emigrants may have sought a new name for their start in life.
To successfully follow your ancestor through emigration, think broadly about his or her name. Don’t rule out similar spellings. Check websites or ethnic organizations to find out how your ancestor’s name may have been spelled in his or her country of origin. If you suspect a large-scale change, gather as many U.S. records as possible and examine them carefully for hints to any previous names.
Spelling changes didn’t only occur when people emigrated. They also occurred within a country. People in the past didn’t have the same concern with spelling that we have today. Many had only a cursory education, making spelling a challenge for them. Instead, people relied on phonetic spellings, meaning they spelled words – even names – like they sounded. Phonetic spelling changes can sometimes be small and easy to identity. The spelling of a surname may fluctuate frequently between Haker and Hacker or from McKeeby to McKeaby, for instance. Records may substitute a single “s” for a double “s” or vice versa in the spellings of some names. Changes such as these cause few problems for a researcher.
However, some spelling changes can be more dramatic and hard to recognize. Sometimes, these larger changes occurred gradually over time. Other times, they happened all at once, particularly when a person moved from one place to another. Often, the new person did not dictate a certain way to spell his or her name. Instead, the pastor spelled it according to sound, or maybe like another family in the area spelled it.
When trying to determine if a name with a different spelling is actually your surname, try saying the name out loud instead of concentrating on the letters themselves. Consider which letters sound similar when spoken. Then, think of these letters as interchangeable in old records. For instance, “d” sounds much like a “t” when spoken. Similarly, a “b” sound is not much different than a “p” sound. Vowels are also hard to distinguish when spoken. In other languages, the letters that sound alike may be slightly different than in English. In German, for example, the “j” and “y” sound the same. While in Spanish, a “v” and “b” are nearly indistinguishable. It helps to become familiar with how your ancestor’s name would have been pronounced in the country in which he or she lived.
Finding your ancestor in several records can provide further clues. For example, one of my ancestors appears sometimes as Dorothea Warnke and other times as Dorothea Warning. Her death record clears up any doubt that the two surnames are the same by writing her name as “Dorothea Warnke, alias Warning.” Similarly, my maiden name changed during the life of my great-great-great-great grandfather from Harprecht to Albrecht. Only after finding a marriage record that provided a birth place and date and names of parents did I become convinced that my Johann Albrecht had been born Johann Harprecht.
Patronymic Naming System
In some places, very different rules governed the use of names. If you have Scandinavian ancestry, you will probably come in contact with one of these – the patronymic naming system. The patronymic naming system was used in a number of northern European countries for hundreds of years (the time at which the system went out of use differs from country to country). Instead of inheriting the surname of their fathers, people in these countries received a surname in a different way. Children took the first name of their father as their own surname and then added the word in their language for “son” or “daughter.” This is illustrated by my Swedish ancestor Beretha, the daughter of Truls Christopherson. In America, she would have received the surname Christopherson also. Instead, she was christened Beretha Trulsdotter, or Beretha, the daughter of Truls.
Tracing patronymic names can be confusing at first. Keep in mind when looking for the next generation back that the surname provides the first name of the father instead of his surname. If you know an ancestor was named Nils Martenson, look for a father with the first name of Marten, not with the surname of Martenson. This means that each generation of the family will have a different surname. People with the same surnames are not particularly likely to be related – they just happen to have had fathers with the same first names.
Patronymic names can be difficult to work with for another reason as well. In these countries, people tended to use a few names over and over again. For example, in Sweden parents named their sons Nils, Marten, Pehr, and Lars quite often. Since surnames are based on first names, the surnames associated with these – Nilsson, Martenson, Pehrson and Larsson are also very common. This leads to numerous people in a relatively small area having exactly the same name. Separating one person from another with the same name can prove challenging.
Names Changes at Marriage and Birth
Marriages and births also had important effects on names. Usually these effects occurred in predictable ways. However, sometimes name changes associated with these events can surprise and confuse the researcher.
In general, at birth children received the surname of their father (with the exception of children born in countries using the patronymic system discussed above). An important exception occurred with illegitimate children. Illegitimate children most often took on the surname of their mother. In a great number of instances during the 1800s and before, these parents eventually married. When the marriage occurred, the children generally switched to using the father’s surname. Sometimes the records didn’t make a note of the change, but just started using the new name. If your ancestor was illegitimate, be aware that his or her surname could suddenly switch in this way. Keep track of the surname of the father if it is available and look for the ancestor under this name as well. In a few cases, parish pastors christened a child with the father’s name even if the child was illegitimate. Although not technically correct according to policies at the time, if the pastor viewed the parents as a couple and knew they would marry soon he might take this step.
Other confusing name changes can occur at marriage. In many European countries, women continued to use their own surname even after marrying. Birth records often list the mother with her maiden name instead of her married name. Be aware that even at death or at a remarriage, a woman could be listed with her maiden name. Other times she may be listed with no surname of her own – but only according to her relationship (for example: Mina, the wife of Georg Albrecht) or with both names.
Making names for women even more complicated is the fact that many women married more than one time during their lives. High death rates among relatively young people meant that people of both sexes lost spouses on a regular basis. Unable to raise and provide for a family alone, most men and women remarried quickly. Keep careful track of the names of any additional spouses for a woman as she may use these names as well. In general, children continued to use the surname they were given at birth, instead of switching to the name of their stepfather.
Other Surname Changes
More difficult to recognize than phonetic changes or name changes at particular events are complete switches in surnames that seem to occur without warning. An awareness of these special cases can help prevent you from passing by your ancestor’s name without recognizing it. Some of the major types of name changes are mentioned below.
Farm Names. The use of farm names was relatively common in some northern European countries. Sometimes people adopted a name associated with a certain farm or place when they lived. The person may have used this name in addition to or in place of his or her own surname. A family that actually lived on the farm may have used the farm name regularly. After a while, the family was only known by the name of the farm. Farmhands and housemaids may have temporarily used this same name during the years they worked on the farm. Once they left, most reverted to their own surname.
The easiest way to identity a farm name is to find a record that lists both names. A record for someone living on the Berg farm may list Johann Tiedemann Berg or Johann Berg, otherwise known as Tiedemann. However, sometimes you may not be so lucky to find a record. If not, try looking at other records in the area to identify the existence of a farm name.
Occupational Titles. Occasionally in early European records, people substituted the title of their occupations for their surnames. For example, my ancestor Lars Johansson worked as a smith in the little town of Bosarp in southern Sweden. Records sometimes list him as expected: Lars Johannson, the smith. However, over time, some of the records occasionally drop his surname and simply list him as Lars the smith, or even Lars Smith. At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss a record with a person named Lars Smith as being for a different person than my Lars. However, further study makes it apparent that these two names belong to the same person. Particularly when working with records in a foreign language, an occupational name may not be obvious at all. To spot occupational names, keep track of your ancestors’ occupations and the words for it in the appropriate language. Also, be aware of names that don’t sound like they belong in the parish – they might be a title or occupation instead of a surname.
Military Names. Finally, in some areas people in the military commonly took on different names during their service and even afterwards. These names usually fell into several categories: military terms, personal characteristics, objects from nature, and names taken from places. Particularly if you know your ancestor served in the military, keep an eye out for name changes of this type.
Clues in Surnames
Even with no other information about your family, simply knowing a surname in some cases can be a big step in tracing the family further. Names can provide clues to a family’s heritage or country of origin. If you have no information about your family’s background, start by using the surname to point you in the direction of helpful sources or indexes that might be available for the country of origin. In this way, you can utilize sources you couldn’t otherwise. (See the sidebar for some hints in identifying the country of origin.) Remember though that relying only on the sound of a surname can sometimes lead you astray. Use the name to direct you to further sources, but never make absolute conclusions based only on a name’s sound.
In addition, an unusual surname can provide you with an extra tool for tracing your family back. With a surname not widely found, you can search genealogical websites and other indexes. If your ancestor was named John Smith and you only know that he lived in the state of New York in 1870, it may be difficult to separate him from the dozens of other people with this name. However, if you had an ancestor named Ebenezer Hochhesier, you probably won’t have a whole lot of other people to wade through in order to identity your ancestor.
So, the next time you search through a stack of records looking for signs of your family surname, remember there might be more to a name than you first thought.
Tips for Identifying Your Ancestors’ County of Origin: Swedish Names: If the surname includes what appears to be a first name followed by “son,” the ancestor probably came from a country that used the patronymic naming system. The “son” ending is particularly likely to be from Sweden. Examples include: Anderson, Nilson, Johnson, Sorenson, Olson, and Jenson (although these Americanized spellings are slightly different than the Swedish forms of the names). Swedes also used names that came from nature such as Dal (Dahl) meaning valley and Bjork meaning birch.
Norwegian Names: People in Norway also commonly relied on the patronymic system, although their names usually end in “sen” (Jensen and Nilsen for example) instead of “son.” Norwegians also utilized farm names extensively.