Genealogy Tips: Searching for Your Ancestors Using Nicknames

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena shows how expanding your name searches to include nicknames can discover records about your ancestors you never found before.

Finding your ancestor in old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Sure, you can search by a given name and sometimes find your ancestor right away. Other times you need to try variations and common misspellings of their name before getting good search results. But if even then you come up empty, what do you search on next?

Try Nicknames

Do you have a nickname? Maybe your nickname is based on your actual given name. Perhaps it has to do with a characteristic or physical trait you possess. You may have earned your nickname playing sports or in the workplace. Sometimes a nickname may make absolutely no sense. In my case, my paternal grandfather gave me a nickname shortly after I was born based on his miss-hearing of my actual middle name. That nickname would make no sense to anyone (and no, I won’t tell you what it is) but it was always the name he used to refer to me.

A person can gain a nickname for all kinds of reasons, including: ease of pronunciation; to distinguish between two family members with the same name; and in some cases to call out a negative trait.

The most important thing to remember about nicknames is that they could have also been used in print when a newspaper referred to your ancestor. Have you given some thought to searching for your ancestor using a nickname?

You Say Mary, I Say Polly

Probably the most familiar use of a nickname is one that simply substitutes one name for a person’s given name. Throughout history, there have been some standard names substituted for “proper” given names. Case in point: Mary. Mary could be May, Mimi, Molly or Polly. And of course she could have been just Mary, Mary Ann or Mary Jane.

While these nicknames may have seemed childish to some – and they certainly were to the writer of this 1875 newspaper article – in reality it’s possible the nickname was used all of the person’s life. This writer seems annoyed at the use of such familiar names as “Bettie,” commenting:

While this vulgar and silly practice of calling ladies by their nicknames is in vogue among the ignorant and the shoddy class in all parts of the country…

article about nicknames, Cincinnati Daily Enquirer newspaper article 5 March 1875

Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 5 March 1875, page 2

Are you searching on all variations of your ancestor’s written name, including nicknames? Their name may have been abbreviated to a form considered archaic to our modern written language, such as “Jno” for John, “Wm” for William or “Geo.” for George. Previous generations’ nicknames may make little sense to us today. Sarah being referred to as Sally is one such example. Many modern people are confused about why Dick is a nickname for Richard, but according to an online article by David K. Israel, 12th and 13th century nicknames for Richard included Rich and Rick as well as rhyming versions of those names – including Dick.*

In order to improve your chances of finding your ancestor in the newspaper (and other records), it’s important to become familiar with nicknames for a given name. One way to do this is to consult a resource list on nicknames like the FamilySearch Wiki page, “Traditional Nicknames in Old Documents – A Wiki List,” or “A Listing of Some Nicknames Used in the 18th & 19th Centuries” from the Connecticut State Library. You can also read more about nicknames in Christine Rose’s book, Nicknames: Past and Present.

Boy, They Weren’t Very Original!

Do you ever get tired of ancestors who seem to use the same few given names generation after generation? Recycling the names William and John, or Elizabeth and Mary, makes it very difficult to trace a family tree. In some cases re-using a name or favoring certain names might be due to a tradition like naming a child after a saint. You may stumble upon a whole family that has used one singular given name, as in the case of one branch of my family where all the daughters share the name Maria but used their middle names in day-to-day life. This is another example of why searching newspapers for variations of your ancestor’s name, such as middle names or nicknames, is so important. Don’t forget to look for home sources or conduct family interviews to uncover a person’s possible nicknames.

Nicknames can be an important distinguisher for those who are given the same name as a parent, grandparent or older relative. A newspaper article may refer to someone as “Junior” or “Senior.” While referring to someone as Junior or the Second (II) may seem straightforward, a more uncommon nickname could be utilized to refer to someone named after a previous generation or who carries the same name held by successive generations. For example, Skip may be the nickname of someone named after their grandfather but not their father.

“Billy the Kid” & “Gorgeous” George

We are all familiar with nicknames that are substitutes for both a given name and surname. A good example is Billy the Kid. Looking for articles using his given name, Henry McCarty, or his alias, William H. Bonney, might not yield as many returns as searching for his moniker, Billy the Kid.

obituary for Billy the Kid, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 22 July 1881

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 22 July 1881, page 1

Billy the Kid wasn’t the only desperado who ditched his given name. Nicknames were seemingly so popular among those committing crimes that the U.S. District Clerk’s Office kept track of defendant’s actual names and nicknames. Researching a black sheep ancestor? Make sure to use both his or her “real” name and their nickname to find relevant articles.

article about criminals' nicknames, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 23 December 1938

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 23 December 1938, page 5

One way to incorporate nicknames in your search is to consider your ancestor’s descriptive nickname substituting for a first or middle name, offset with quotes, as is often done for people like athletes or criminals.

This 1962 sports example of a wrestler named George “Gorgeous” Grant shows the difficulty that can arise when searching on a name. I’ve also seen a nickname listed with parenthesis in the middle like George (Gorgeous) Grant in genealogically-rich articles like obituaries. So make sure that you search on multiple versions of a name including just the nickname and the surname. And while exact phrase searches are important, incorporate other searches as well.

article about professional wrestlers, Times-Picayune newspaper article 14 February 1962

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 14 February 1962, page 37

When you aren’t sure of a family member’s nickname, it can be beneficial to try a surname search and include other keywords that can assist you in discovering that nickname. Remember that on GenealogyBank, in addition to keywords, you can narrow your search by place, date, newspaper title and even type of article.

article about professional baseball players, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 26 August 1911

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 26 August 1911, page 13

Before you start your next family history research project, keep in mind the importance of having a list of name variations that includes all the various nicknames and versions of your ancestor’s name, as well as possible misspellings.

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* “The Origins of 10 Nicknames,” by David K. Israel. Mental Floss: http://mentalfloss.com/article/24761/origins-10-nicknames

Related Name Search Articles:

Go West Old Maid! Some of Our Unmarried Ancestors Did

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about a time – in 1898 – when the U.S. government published a report and map to help unmarried women locate bachelors throughout the country.

Having trouble finding a marriage partner? Whom should you turn to for help? A matchmaker? A family member or friend? How about Uncle Sam?

Yes, Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam entered into the matchmaking business with the publishing of a 19th century U.S. Census Bureau report. This work was unique in that it addressed where to find an eligible bachelor based on location. According to the dissertation “Unclaimed Flowers and Blossoms Protected by Thorns: Never-Married Women in the United States, 1880-1930” by Jill Frahm*:

In 1898, the U.S. Census Bureau published what the popular press dubbed an “Old Maids Chart” graphically illustrating at a glance in what localities bachelors [were] the thickest, and in what regions spinsters [were] most dense per square mile.

illustration of a couple at their wedding

Credit: skinbus; openclipart.org

Using the now lost-to-us 1890 census (much of it was destroyed in a 1921 fire), the report documented “the number of single men and women over the age of twenty in each state.”

Statistical Chart of Bachelors and Spinsters of the United States

While officially titled the “Statistical Chart of Bachelors and Spinsters of the United States,” an 1898 Colorado newspaper article suggested a more tongue in cheek title:

The National Guide to Bachelors; a complete index for old maids and spinsters to the best places in the Union for getting husbands; with maps, charts, etc.; tells at a glance just where bachelors are most abundant.

article about a government report on bachelors and unmarried women in the United States, Denver Post newspaper article 23 September 1898

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 23 September 1898, page 4

Newspapers across the United States reported on the findings of this report. Like any article picked up by the wire services, some reports contained more information than others – and in some cases included the writer’s personal opinion.

How Many Eligible Bachelors Are There?

Did late 19th century spinsters believe that their lack of a marital status was the result of too few good men where they lived? While this was true during certain time periods like immediately after the American Civil War or in Britain after World War I, that doesn’t really seem to be the case in 19th century America, according to this 1898 Kansas newspaper article which stated that there were 2,200,000 more bachelors than old maids in the United States. (It’s important to remember that in reality not all of the men counted as single in the census would have been eligible bachelors. Some may have been institutionalized or incarcerated for example).

The article reports:

There is not a state in the union where there are as many old maids as bachelors. Even Massachusetts, the traditional home of the spinster of the poll-parrot species, has more men than women of marriageable age.

article about a government report on bachelors and unmarried women in the United States, American Citizen newspaper article 14 October 1898

American Citizen (Kansas City, Kansas), 14 October 1898, page 4

The article says “old maids” should have good luck finding bachelors anywhere in the U.S. – but it especially urges spinsters to “Go West”:

But if she wants a territory where negotiations may be completed with even greater ease – where the lottery of marriage must become a dead sure thing – let her hie herself from the crowded cities of the east to the rolling prairies or mountain wilds of the west, where there are ten bachelors to every available maiden. What spinster can resist such an advantage as this, which is offered by the states of Idaho and Wyoming? It would surely be a hopeless case which would not find its cure with the chances ten to one for recovery. Let the old maids try the free, fresh air of these mountain lands for awhile.

Where was the best place for a 19th century “old maid” to find a husband? Probably not too surprisingly, the western states of Idaho and Wyoming. Whether or not it was true, a popular belief was that young men were heading west to seek their riches, thus leaving behind single women in the New England states.

Some editorializing occurred with the publishing of this government report, including the stereotypical views regarding why marriage eluded some women. In this 1898 Massachusetts newspaper article, the rather derogatory point is made that:

With these figures in hand it ought not to be hard for the average lonely spinster to hunt down a husband and corner him, so to speak. She need not be attractive; a woman does not need many charms to secure a mate in a region like Idaho or Wyoming, where there are ten bachelors for every available maiden.

article about a government report on bachelors and unmarried women in the United States, Boston Journal newspaper article28 August 1898

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 August 1898, page 8

When Are You Getting Married?

So was every New England spinster chomping at the bit to go west to seek her (husband) fortune? Maybe not, according to author Betsy Israel. In her book Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century she writes:

…very few unwed New England women were inclined to trek after men into the wilderness. The self-educated spinster, in particular, understood just what was in store for her “out there.”

She goes on to point out that a good number of children were needed to help out on farms, and that farm work was hard and giving birth was dangerous, with 1 in 25 pioneer women dying in childbirth.** Other authors have also suggested that professional opportunities for women after the Civil War may have resulted in many women delaying marriage. Economic and educational opportunities may have also influenced where women lived, so they were not necessarily sitting idle in their hometown, left behind by men seeking their fortune.

An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.

Do you have a “spinster” aunt in your family tree? Or do you have a female ancestor that headed west to find a husband? What’s her story? Please share it in the comments below.

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* Franhm, Jill. Unclaimed Flowers and Blossoms Protected by Thorns: Never-Married Women in the United States, 1880-1930. Dissertation. University of Minnesota. p. 142-143. Available at http://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/96235.
** Israel, Betsy. Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century. New York: William Morrow. p. 22.

Related Marriage Articles:

Obituaries – From Annual Reports – Congress has chartered many national associations – among them the American Instructors of the Deaf.

National Archives, Library of Congress Documents Go Online

The National Archives and the Library of Congress announced today that they have begun loading digital copies of their materials on a new site called the World Digital Library.

Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced today that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has become a founding partner in the World Digital Library (WDL).

NARA will contribute digital versions of important documents from its collections to the WDL, which will be launched for the international public in early 2009.

These documents include Civil War photographs, naturalization and immigration records of famous Americans, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and photographs by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine. Examples of the images that NARA is contributing to the World Digital Library are now available online.

Example of a naturalization document – Declaration of Intent of Maria von Trapp, 01/21/1944 – that was put online by NARA. NARA ARC Identifier 596198.

The WDL will include representative examples from these document categories – not the complete backfiles of these documents.

The complete run of the American State Papers is already available on GenealogyBank. See GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents collection where you will find military records, casualty lists, Revolutionary and Civil War pension requests, widow’s claims, orphan petitions, land grants and much more including the complete American State Papers (1789-1838) and all genealogical content carefully selected from the U.S. Serial Set (1817-1980). More than 146,000 reports, lists and documents. GenealogyBank has the most comprehensive collection of these US Government reports and documents available to genealogists online. GenealogyBank is adding more documents to this collection every month.

Proposed in 2005 by the Library of Congress in cooperation with UNESCO, the WDL will make available on the Internet significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world. The project’s goal is to promote international understanding and to provide a resource for use by students, teachers, and general audiences.

“We are pleased that our fellow Federal cultural institution, the National Archives, is joining the Library of Congress in the early stages of this project,” said Billington.

“NARA’s participation not only will ensure that the World Digital Library contains a full record of the American experience, but it also will encourage archives around the world to join with their counterparts from the library world in this important initiative.”

“The mission of the National Archives is to make U.S. Government records widely accessible,” said Weinstein. “The World Digital Library will be a valuable conduit for us to share some of our nation’s treasures with others around the world. We look forward to working with the Library of Congress on this important project.”

In addition to NARA and the Library of Congress, the WDL project partners include cultural institutions from Brazil, China, Egypt, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. Click here for more Information about the WDL.

The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest Federal cultural institution, is the world’s preeminent reservoir of knowledge, providing unparalleled integrated resources to Congress and the American people. Founded in 1800, the Library seeks to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections. The Library seeks to spark the public’s imagination and celebrate human achievement through its programs and exhibits. In doing so, the institution helps foster the informed and involved citizenry upon which American democracy depends. The Library serves the public, scholars, members of Congress and their staffs through its 22 reading rooms on Capitol Hill. Many of the rich resources and treasures of the Library may also be accessed through its
award-winning web site and via interactive exhibitions on a new, personalized web site.
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GenealogyBank.com adding more New Jersey newspapers – will bring total to 56

Here is another peek at the list of newspapers that will be added in the coming months to GenealogyBank.

These titles are for New Jersey.
To see the list of 51 New Jersey newspapers already live on GenealogyBank – click here.

New Jersey
New Brunswick, NJ. Fredonian 1811 to 1817; 1821 to 1840
Newark, NJ. Centinel of Freedom. 1821 to 1872
Trenton, NJ. New Jersey State Gazette. 1792 to 1799
Trenton, NJ. The Times. 1883 to 1922
Trenton, NJ. Trenton Emporium. 1827 to 1828


Your membership in GenealogyBank entitles you to read the complete text of over 230 million articles and records – search for more than 1 billion of your relatives.

Over 3,500 newspapers 1690 to today!

Sign up now and ask your friends to join with us in bringing more records online – It’s only $9.95 – click here and sign-up now.

Even more Genealogy Blogs …

Earlier this week I wrote: A genealogy blog? What’s that?

I told you about key genealogy blogs that you read daily. But wait, there’s more.
Here are even more genealogy blog sites that are must reading:
Tracing the Tribe: The Jewish Genealogy Blog – knowledgeable blogger Schelly Talalay Dardashti has one foot planted in her home in Israel and another with her relatives and family here in the States. Her articles go beyond resources focused on Jewish research and cover technology and opportunities that will help genealogists researching other lines as well. Schelly will be speaking on genealogy blogs at the Southern California Genealogical Jamboree next weekend in Burbank.
The Genealogue: Genealogy News You Can’t Possibly Use is one of the funniest and informative sites out there. Written much in the spirit of TV’s Colbert Report this is must reading for genealogists. Here is his official portrait on his blog … and be sure to click here and read his About Me page.
Another must read site is: Roots Television Megan’s Roots World written by Megan Smolenyak – the prolific lecturer and author. Her brief blog posts are tech savvy – often speak to DNA research – or to her break through research findings. She is a key leader in genealogy today.
Click here to learn more about her presentations at the Southern California Genealogical Jamboree next weekend.

It was Megan’s Roots Television that arranged for Dick Eastman’s interview with me about GenealogyBank. This short upbeat interview gives a good look at the “Wow” value of GenealogyBank – and that was a year ago at the 2007 FGS Conference. We’ve added more than 30 million items to GenealogyBank since then. Click here to watch the video.
Everyone reads Genea-Musings by Randy Seaver – his daily posts focus on his research on the Seaver family, new technology and items he has spotted on other blogs – in the news and beyond – all of it useful.
GenWeekly has been published since 2004 by Steve Johns, Kristin Bradt and Illya D’Addezio. Illya is also the publisher of Genealogy Today which has regular columns; articles; a newsletter and databases that genealogists read, use and rely on.
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