Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Jessica Howe specializes in finding unknown ancestors. In this article, we discover some tips for identifying women in historical records by learning how cultural differences worldwide affect names and naming practices.
Suppose you have searched for female relatives in online databases. In that case, there is a good chance you’ve come across an alternate spelling of their name or found that they went by a completely different name throughout different records. Here are a few tips to identify your female ancestor in documents:
Consider Your Ancestor May Have Used a Nickname
It is not uncommon to find records for women who were listed as Betsy (Margaret), Sally (Sarah), Polly (Mary), or Tilly (Matilda), later finding out their given name was completely different due to nicknames for the period.
Take Accents into Consideration
Geographic accents play a significant role in recalling relatives’ names and places and often influence how documents are recorded in your hometown. For example, a woman known by her grandchildren as ‘Granny Idermay’ was named Ida May. The Southern accent her family had added the -er to Ida’s first name and combined her first and middle names, so her children and grandchildren eventually assumed her name was ‘Idermay’ instead of Ida May.
Phonetic Spelling Was Common
Documents with phonetic spellings were something commonly seen leading up to the mid-20th century. Most generations had no extensive formal education (rural schools on average only had 5-6 months a year due to crop harvests), and many children were considered graduated if they had an eighth-grade education. The lack of educational opportunities, especially in rural areas, led to countless misspellings due to the pronunciation of names.
Ashkenazi Jews often maintained separate legal and religious identities. You will often see females listed with their religious names in earlier records and then adopt the American equivalent later. German ancestors may have used a German name daily, but their legal and religious name may have been a Latin equivalent. German girls were baptized with the first name of Maria, Anna, or Anna Maria, and the second name (known as Rufname) was used in official records. By the 19th century, many Germans had three names (the religious first name and then two middle names), and they could have used all three names throughout their lives. If they migrated to the U.S., they could have shortened their given names over time. Jewish families will also give a child a relative’s Hebrew name to honor their deceased loved one who also had that name but use a given name that is entirely different.
In Japan, Buddhists often obtain a kaimyō for a deceased relative from a Buddhist priest in exchange for a donation to the temple. After that, the relative is posthumously referred to by that name as a show of respect.
Naming Patterns Can Be Helpful – Sometimes
Scottish and Irish families often had naming patterns for their children in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first-born daughter was named after the child’s mother’s mother, the second-born daughter after the child’s father’s mother, the third-born daughter after the child’s mother, and so on. If a child died in infancy, it was acceptable to name the next child with that same first name so that you may find two Margaret’s in the same family, and it could be a clue that the first infant had died.
The More You Know
Throughout the world, local customs and practices greatly influence the naming of children. A researcher’s job is to understand how these cultural differences influence the names found in vital records and other resources. It is equally important to stay abreast of new laws that affect how names are passed to future generations. For example, traditional Latin American last names consist of the father’s last name, followed by the mother’s last name. However, in recent years, many Latin American countries such as Argentina passed laws that contradict traditional Spanish naming practices that favor patrilineal surnames.
If you have hit a brick wall in your research due to your inability to identify an ancestor, the reason could be an incorrect spelling of or an error in recording an ancestor’s name. Our genealogists are knowledgeable and experienced in dealing with this situation. Contact us for a free estimate on professional research.
Teresa Sawyers says
I would like to get my family tree researched
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Christine Chamberlin says
Can I give you my DNA results to see what you uncover? I had a bone marrow biopsy and I have results but don’t know how to read them
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Robert E. Olsen says
Good post. I have a family tree of over 12,000 names, and the challenge of matching family members’ names to public record representations of their names never ends. As recently as three generations ago my great-grandmother Atelie (or Athelie) was called Ottile at times, and her husband was variously known as Thorvald or Thorwald (the Norwegian “v” being pronounced like an American “w”). My father’s middle name was also Thorvald, and it too sometimes appeared in print as Thorwald.
I have used a genealogist twice in the Czech Republic in a futile effort to determine the Czech name and parentage of my great grandfather Charles Kohoutek and whether he was the biological father of my grandmother, said to have been born in Prague two years before the family’s immigration to the United States. They referred to records there to which I have no access online, and in fact one of them suggested that Charles Kohoutek, born in 1852, could have been the person identified in his hometown records as Karel (or Karl) Cohn, but who really knows at this point?
Genealogy plays on the same interests in my brain as history, law, and accounting. It’s good stuff.
Beth Harrison says
Thank you for your feedback about your experience researching your family tree. If you have hit a brick wall and are interested in further research, we have a DNA specialist that focuses on the Czech Republic, among other Central European areas. Feel free to reach out on our Consultant page (scroll down the page to Central Europe) to make an appointment for a consultation that will help you continue your own research.
Sherry Alpert says
My mother was adopted and through dna I think I have found the father but I have not been able to my grandmother since they were not married!?? Any clues how I can find her?
Beth Harrison says
Thank you for reaching out, Sherry, although this is not an easy question to answer without a bit of research. Please complete this form to request a free quote on research, and a member of our Client Solutions Team will reach out to you with more information on how we could help you.