26 December 2012

What Name Do You Use?

A recent Genealogy Tip of the Day was about names. It generated more discussion than usual and got me to thinking in more detail about what name we decide to "use" to refer to an ancestor.

Names in some records, particularly before the late 19th century, are inconsistent in their spelling of names and exactly how individuals are referred to. We will assume that you already "know" those variant spellings are the same person. The question for many genealogists is "when the ancestor has many spelling variants," how do I decide which one use when referring to them?" Documents should always be transcribed exactly as they are recorded--that needs to be made clear. Changes or corrections should not be made to the original document, even when transcribing it, and comments should be made in notations that are clearly not a part of the document itself.

What Name Should I Use?

To a point, it is personal preference on the part of the researcher--we don't often know what name our ancestor actually preferred--most of our ancestors do not leave behind documents clearly indicating their name preference. At times, ancestors do leave clues.

The tombstone shown in this post is for my great-grandmother, Fannie Iona (Rampley) Neill. Francis is the name on her birth certificate and some would say it is her real name solely for that reason. My great-grandmother is referred to as Fannie every document she ever signed in her life. Other than her birth certificate, Fannie is always referred to as Fannie and signed numerous times throughout her life. Never Francis. Because it  is somewhat clear great-grandmother preferred Fannie, then that is the name that I use for her. Of course the transcription of her birth certificate says her name was Francis--because that is what it says.

In the case of Fannie, I do not use an "also know as" or even a "nickname." Personally I don't use the "nickname" field unless I really know that the person used that nickname. Fannie may be a nickname for Francis, but for great-grandma it wasn't her nickname--it was her name.

A great-grandfather is actually named  John Michael Trautvtter. He is referred to as Michael or Mike in some records. I use "Michael" as an also known as and "Mike" as nickname. Michael is not really a nickname, but Mike is.


Half of my ancestors were born in Ostfriesland, Germany, and have traditional low-German names. Many of these immigrants Anglicized their names some time after they arrived in the United States. Some gave their American-born children low-German names that were also Anglicized. 

Because I like the low-German sounding names, I tend to use those for individuals who Anglicized. I indicate what Anglicized name they used, if they used one. This may seem inconsistent with the Fannie example. Perhaps it is. Most of these immigrants, despite having used Anglicized names, have their low-German names on their tombstones. That to me is something of an indication of what name they used. In fact, my great-grandparents, Fred and Tena Ufkes are the only set of Ostfriesen extraction ancestors who have their Anglicized names on their stones.

So for Fred, I use Fred as his name, Frederich as his "also known as," and Fritz as his "nickname." I have records that refer to him by these names and those names are connected to those sources in my database.

I also transcribe each document as it reads--and connect it to the appropriate name. When I "choose" a name for an ancestor, I always make a note about why that name was chosen in my notes.

1 comment:

Louise Hanson said...

Michael, thank you for this post.
My biological mother, whose parents emigrated from Norway in 1881 and were naturalized in 1896, was born in New Jersey in 1912, Her birth name was Lilly Anna Ellefsen. Some time after her birth, they returned to Norway to live, apparantly permanently; I have been unable to find when then returned. She was raised in Norway and had a daughter there. In 1936, she returned to America, leaving behind her daughter to be raised by her parents. Her name on her return voyage was Lillie Anna Ellefsen (note change in first name spelling). I was born in 1940 and on my birth certificate, she lists her first name as Lillian. She is also Lillian on her 1941 SS Application and on my brother's birth certificate in 1943. I have no indication as to why she changed her name from Lilly Anna to Lillian, but do find it interesting that she did so. I thought this might be an interesting example of the name changes that we sometimes have to sort through.