from the Ancestry
Michael John Neill – 9/4/2002
A Rose By Any Other Name
If each ancestor had one precise name, family history
research would be significantly easier. However, genealogists live in an
imperfect world. Nicknames, diminutives, and Anglicizations of non-English
names frequently create genealogical confusion. They can easily cause the
family historian to see two individuals where only one really existed.
Last month we spent some time analyzing census records on Thomas Chaney,
a Pennsylvania resident who died in 1856. Since Thomas and his family are
fresh in my mind, our discussion of nicknames will begin with Thomas's will.
The will of Thomas Chaney was admitted to probate in Bedford County in
1856. The following children are named: William, Thomas, Sally, Betsy, and
Rebecca. No other children are mentioned and from other records it is clear
that Thomas had ten children. Sally and Betsy do not appear in the list of
Thomas children from his biography, but I should not immediately assume that
Thomas has two additional children not listed in the biography. The
references to Sally and Betsy are likely to already known children Sarah and
Elizabeth. Sally was a common nickname for Sarah, and Betsy is still a
common nickname for Elizabeth. Nicknames will get me in trouble if I'm not
When the genealogist uses a variety of records for one family (which they
should), the chance they encounter nicknames increases. Census records are
an excellent place to get additional names for family members. They are also
an excellent place (if one is not careful) to accidentally create additional
children where none existed. Comparing ages and dates of birth is one place
to begin seeing potential duplication of individuals via nicknames. It may
also be helpful to use lists of known nicknames to determine if two
different names are actually references to the same person.
Of course, some families break all the rules. This is why research beyond
census records is imperative. Vital records, obituaries on the parents,
probate and will records on the parents, land records transferring property
after the parents death, and other records may help clarify some of these
issues. Of course if you think one person went by two names, clearly
indicate your reasons in your research notes. While we may use intuition or
instinct to get our research started, your research source should not be
Middle Names Too
Your ancestor may have used a combination of first and middle names
during his lifetime. My forebear John Michael Trautvetter is listed in
various documents as:
Jahn Trautvetter (the German form of his first name)
J. M. Trautvetter
These are the five most common variants and sometimes it seemed like
which name he used was dependent upon which day of the week he was being
asked! Of course your ancestor might have given his full name, and the
official creating the record could have put down whatever he deemed
appropriate. Your ancestor might not have been able to read the document to
see if the name was correct and the record keeper might not have cared if
the name was correct anyway.
Just A Childhood Name?
In some religious denominations and in some ethnic areas, children would
use certain names and then take adult names when they became of age. Some
German Catholics did this and they were not alone in this practice. It is
always worthwhile to learn about naming practices and procedures for the
ethnic group your ancestor was a part of and for the religion she practiced.
However some families did not practice what was common practice. There's
always the one exception to the rule--make certain you document why you
believe your family was the exception. Again, avoid listing "my gut" as the
An ancestor of mine made a bequest in her 1904 will to a Katherine
Trautvetter. As I read the will I realized I had never heard of any
Katherine Trautvetter. Apparently the executor of the will had not either.
His initial report indicated he did not know who Katherine was and felt she
could not be located. His final report indicated Katherine was actually the
middle name of the ancestor's granddaughter, Adolphena Trautvetter. In all
my research, I had never encountered the middle name of this relative.
Before the will and probate settlement was located the individual in
question had only been referred to as Feenie or Adolphena.
Always Used A Nickname?
My great-grandmothers birth certificate lists her name as Frances
Rampley. Every other document during her entire life lists her name as
Fannie. Every document she signed, from her marriage license to her husbands
probate papers lists her name as Fannie.
Of course there's always the family that chose names for children that
were extremely similar if not exactly the same. Eighteenth century Ohio
natives Archibald and Lucinda Kile named daughters Lucinda and Lucina. One
relative asked if they were the same person. Court and other records are
pretty clear that these two children are distinct. Some of my families from
Ostfriesland, Germany, named children Anna and Anka---two names also very
similar and two names that translate into English as the same name creating
In some time periods, families may have re-used the name of a child who died
at a young age. One ancestral family has four daughters with the exact same
name. The first three all died shortly after birth.
Translated to English?
Those of us with ancestors who were not originally English speaking have
additional problems with names, especially when researching the generation
that jumped the pond and their children. Some translations are fairly
straightforward and some translations from some languages to English are
fairly standard. The following sites may be helpful in locating more
French Names and English equivalents
Cyndi's List -- Section on Names
Those with name translation problems may wish to post their query to the
appropriate genealogical mailing list on
RootsWeb or the message boards at
Ancestry. The appropriate country page of
Cyndi's list may also have links to
additional name information. Searches for the nickname at a search engine
such as Google may also produce
I don't have one and perhaps your ancestor did not either. I do realize
that Mike is occasionally used as a nickname for Michael. While it is a fine
name, I choose not to use it.
Genealogical Nicknames (Female)
Genealogical Nicknames (Male)
Have Some Proof
If you think your ancestor used a nickname, try and back that statement
up as much as possible. Keep in mind that there might have been a John
Tinsley and a Jonathan Tinsley who were contemporaries. Perhaps they were
first cousins instead of being the same man.
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
and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at:
visit his website at: www.rootdig.com/,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
Copyright 2002, MyFamily.com.
Used by the
Author on his website with permission