Given Name(s) Last Name

from the Ancestry Daily News
  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.

Thomas' 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 careful.

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 your gut.

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:


  • John Trautvetter
  • Michael Trautvetter
  • Jahn Trautvetter (the German form of his first name)
  • Mike Trautvetter
  • 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 source.

    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.

    Similar Names?
    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 additional confusion.

    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 information:

    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 additional suggestions.

    No Nickname?
    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: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

    Copyright 2002,

    Used by the Author on his website with permission

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