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:

Top 7 Websites for Revolutionary War Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena discusses—and provides links to—seven top online resources for researching your American Revolutionary War ancestors.

Do you have a Revolutionary War ancestor? Maybe you have always heard that your ancestor was a soldier or a patriot during the American Revolution. Perhaps you have a female ancestor who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Do you have copies of your ancestor’s military records but are not sure where to go next with your family history research? It’s time to make a genealogy research plan.

Painting: surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga on 17 October 1777 to American General Horatio Gates, by John Trumbull

Painting: surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga on 17 October 1777 to American General Horatio Gates, by John Trumbull. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When thinking about researching your Revolutionary ancestor, consider what records may be left behind that result from his military service, death, and even his legacy.* Also keep in mind where such records may be held. While it’s easy to assume that the majority of records will be found at the National Archives or a subscription-based website, there are various online repositories with historical Revolutionary-period records useful to your ancestry research.

Ask questions of each record you find and then look for documents that answer those questions. While some of the research you do will involve looking for documents that include his name, there will be general histories about events your ancestor was involved in—which don’t specifically mention him by name—that you will also want to consult to learn more about his day-to-day life in the battlefields and political developments of the time.

Not sure where to start? Begin first with an overall search of newspapers and digitized books.

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1) Newspaper Articles and Historical Books

In my previous article Tracing Your Colonial & Revolutionary Ancestry in Newspapers, I wrote about articles that can be found in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for finding your Revolutionary War ancestor. Whether you are just starting your research or have been at it for years, you should begin with newspapers to see what more you can learn. Because GenealogyBank is constantly adding newspapers, searching just once is not enough—keep coming back, to search the new material. A helpful feature of GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives search page is that you can narrow your search to an “Added Since” date so that you are not going through the same results you viewed previously.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's Historical Newspaper Archives search page

Obviously, one of the newspaper article-types that you will hope to find is an obituary. An obituary may provide key information including family members’ names, military service, occupation, and the cemetery where he is buried.

One resource researchers might not be as familiar with is GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents & Records collection, which includes the American State Papers. These federal government documents can include mentions of Revolutionary War soldiers—and their widows—as they applied for things like pensions.

Search Tip: As you search the GenealogyBank collections, make sure to keep in mind name variations. Don’t just stop after searching one version of your ancestor’s name. Write out a list of various name combinations that take into account their initials, name abbreviations (Jno, Benj., Wm.), and nicknames—as well as possible misspellings of the first and last name.

2) Online Grave Listings

In addition to newspaper articles and historical books, there are several online resources available for lists of Revolutionary War soldiers’ graves. To read more about these resources, see the article Revolutionary War Cemetery Records on the FamilySearch Wiki.

screenshot of FamilySearch's page for American Revolutionary War records

Source: FamilySearch

3) Daughters of the American Revolution

Want to verify that your ancestor was a Revolutionary War patriot? Maybe you have a copy of a female family member’s DAR application. Looking to become a member of the DAR or the SAR (Sons of the American Revolution)? Even if you aren’t interested in joining these groups, they have a vast collection of resources that can help you with your research. According to DAR member and chapter registrar Sheri Beffort Fenley, there are two resources all non-DAR members should use.

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The first is the Genealogical Research System. According to their website, the Genealogical Research System (GRS) “is a collection of databases that provide access to the many materials amassed by the DAR since its founding in 1890.”

screenshot of the Daughters of the American Revolution's Genealogical Research System website

Source: Daughters of the American Revolution

The second resource Fenley recommends is the DAR Library.

screenshot of the Daughters of the American Revolution's Library website

Source: Daughters of the American Revolution

While you are looking at the DAR homepage, make sure to click on the Resources tab. Here you’ll find the Revolutionary Pension Card Index as well as a great eBook entitled Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots of the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources, and Studies.

4) Google Books

I would also recommend using Google Books to look through books and periodicals involving the DAR and their various chapters, as well as other genealogical information from the Revolutionary War. It’s a great place to find lineages and transcriptions.

screenshot of the Google Books website

Source: Google

5) Sons of the American Revolution

The Sons of the American Revolution Genealogical Research Library in Kentucky also may be of use to your research. To learn more about their collection and their SAR Patriot Index, see their website.

screenshot of the Sons of the American Revolution's Research Library website

Source: Sons of the American Revolution

6) National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)

The National Archives holds the records of our federal government, including military records. For the Revolutionary War you can find everything from Compiled Military Service Records to pensions and bounty land records. (Please note that NARA is the caretaker for federal records; they do not have state records such as state militia records. For those records, you need to contact the appropriate state archives.) Click here to see a list of NARA Revolutionary War records. A good tutorial for learning more about obtaining military records from NARA is on their web page: Genealogy Research in Military Records.

screenshot of the National Archives and Records Administration's American Revolutionary War records website

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

7) FamilySearch Resources

There are also several Revolutionary War databases available from the free website FamilySearch, including the searchable United States Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications, 1800-1900. Most people automatically think of service records and pensions when they think of military service—but what is often missed are bounty land grants. Military Bounty Land was offered to men in return for their military service. This served as both an enticement and a reward for longer service. Your ancestor may have received much more from his service than just monetary compensation. To learn more about bounty land and how to research it, see Christine Rose’s book Military Bounty Land 1776-1855.

The United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 from FamilySearch “contains images of muster rolls, payrolls, strength returns, and other personnel, pay, and supply records of the American Army during the Revolutionary War.” This collection is not searchable; you have to browse it, and you need to know the state your soldier fought for. Make sure to utilize the FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki to learn more about other Revolutionary War documents available from FamilySearch.

screenshot of FamilySearch's Family History Research Wiki website

Source: FamilySearch

Wherever you are in your search for your Revolutionary War ancestor, make sure to have a plan and a list of genealogy resources—and then go through each one. Using a combination of sources including newspapers, digitized books, and military records, you can start to put together the story of your Revolutionary War ancestor soldier’s life.

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* Because the majority of soldiers in the Revolutionary War were men, I’m going to refer to them as “he.” However, women did fight alongside their male relatives on the battlegrounds. To learn more about the women of the Revolutionary War, see the book Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin.