Given Name(s) Last Name

From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 3/3/2004

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; and
- 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?

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004,

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