"Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of all sits Probably Arboreal." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Detective work 1. The clue's in the name...

We all know that genealogy is about fact-finding and evidence. But sometimes when that evidence just doesn’t present itself, we have to turn detective in order to make that crucial leap forward.
First of all, names:
It was traditional, in the Christian religion at least, to name your children after your parents, so it’s always helpful to look at children’s names to help you get back a generation, particularly the older ones. It can be particularly helpful if you have two possible sets of parents for your ancestor, to look at what that ancestor named their children. Of course, you do need to take into consideration that there are four grandparents for whom they might be named – but then that might be twice the help, if you’re lucky!
Similarly, middle names often pass through families, and can be really useful when matching up parents and children. It can also be a bit of clue to a mother’s maiden name, particularly if it’s not a traditional Christian name. 
Then there are those generic family names. Examples from my own family tree include Honor and Ezra Hampshire, both of which occur more the once across the Hampshire generations. Particularly in an area where there are apparently distinct families with the same surname, this can be a really useful way of starting to group them together.
Both middle names and children’s names, can also be used this to identify possible cousins. You can then work back that way to find the common grandparent. Remember, just because you can’t make the link back from your ancestor doesn’t mean you couldn’t find a way back from a possible cousin!
Of course, there’s always the possibility that the clue is absolutely not in the name. Name changes can be a nightmare! Christian names were shortened in a variety of ways, some of which seem completely arbitrary: Mary or Mary Ann often became Polly for instance. Bear in mind too that Harry can be short of Henry or Harold, Teddy for Theodore or Edward, and Elizabeth can be shortened in an almost infinite number of ways.
Similarly, surnames change for lots of reasons – oddities of spelling are especially common, from a time when a lot of people were illiterate and before spellings generally became standardised. Often these are unpredictable – I’ve come across spellings of names that I would never have thought to search for in all of my ‘wildcard’ attempts! People might adopt an alias or a stage name, and women remarrying might do so under their maiden name or their former married name, and sometimes both. Illegitimate children might take their mother’s name, their real father’s name or a step-father’s name at any point in their lives. Switching between names was not uncommon.
Basically, you have to keep an open mind. Just because the name is different doesn’t mean it’s not them. Weigh up all the other factors before dismissing them.

L x

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