Genealogy Tips: Problems with Personal Names, Place Names, Dates & Occupations (Part I)

Introduction: In this first installment of a two-part article, Jessica Edwards gives tips for dealing with challenging personal and place names in your family history research. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

Beginning genealogists often make four mistakes: (1) coming across relatives who have the same first and last name and mistakenly combining records thinking they’re all about the same person (causing a Gordian Knot for those family members who try to pick up the family genealogy and continue it); (2) place names; (3) dates; and (4) occupations. Here are some tips to help you with these potential problems.

Pointers on Names of People

The use of names across generations, marriages and other relationships, and immigration may cause difficulty in genealogical research. For example, women’s names in many cultures are derived from their husband’s surname. When a woman remarried, she may have: changed her name and the names of her children; changed only her name; or changed no names. Her maiden name, or birth name, may be found in her children’s middle names; she may have made it her own middle name; or dropped it entirely. Children may sometimes assume the surname of their stepparent, foster parent, or adoptive parent. Official records may reflect many kinds of surname changes, without explaining the underlying reason for the change. The correct identification of a person recorded with more than one name becomes challenging.

Historically, naming traditions existed in some places and cultures. Even in areas that tended to use naming conventions, however, they were by no means universal and families may have used them some of the time, among some of their children, or not at all. A pattern might also be broken to name a newborn after a recently deceased sibling, aunt or uncle.

Here is an example of a naming tradition from England, Scotland and Ireland. The pattern used to be:

Child Namesake

  • 1st son: paternal grandfather
  • 2nd son: maternal grandfather
  • 3rd son: father
  • 4th son: father’s oldest brother
  • 1st daughter: maternal grandmother
  • 2nd daughter: paternal grandmother
  • 3rd daughter: mother
  • 4th daughter: mother’s oldest sister

In some areas of Germany, siblings were given the same first name (often of a favorite saint or local nobility), but different second names by which they were known (Rufname). If a child died, the next child of the same gender that was born may have been given the same name. It is not uncommon that a list of a particular couple’s children will show one or two names repeated – so be very careful in your research and try to find other information about the individual to make sure you have the correct person.

Personal names have periods of popularity, so it is not uncommon to find many similarly-named people in a generation, and even similarly-named families; e.g., “William and Mary and their children William, Mary, and John.” In my own family I had an uncle by marriage with the legal name of James (he went by “Pete”), who named his second son James (he goes by “Jimmer”), and when “Jimmer” had a son he named him James as well! All have the same last name, so when I am doing research I have to carefully look at the year of birth to make sure it is the correct James.

Many names may be identified strongly with a particular gender; e.g., William for boys, and Mary for girls. Others may be ambiguous, e.g., Lee. Others have only slightly variant spellings based on gender, e.g., Frances (usually female) and Francis (usually male).

In the Jewish faith it is common to NOT name any child the same name as a living relative (it is considered bad luck).

Common Problems with Place Names

Place names may be subject to a variety of spellings because many people in bygone days could barely read and write. Locations may have identical or very similar names. For example, the village name “Brockton” occurs six times in the border area between the English counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire.

Here’s another problem: the town I graduated high school from is named Jersey Shore (although it’s in the center of Pennsylvania – named after the earliest settlers supposedly thought it looked like the shores of Jersey in England where they were from). People commonly mistake it for THE Jersey Shore (in New Jersey – thanks to a popular cable show) and ask if I know any of the cast members or places where the show is filmed.

Shifts in political borders must also be understood. Parish, county and national borders have frequently been modified. Old records may contain references to farms and villages that have ceased to exist. For example, my maternal grandfather was from a little town 90 km from Prague in what used to be Czechoslovakia, but no longer exists. At various times throughout history the censuses have said his town was in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire as well.

Available sources may include vital records (civil or church registration), censuses, and tax assessments. Oral tradition is also an important source, but it must be used with caution. When no source information is available for a location, circumstantial evidence may provide a probable answer based on a person’s or a family’s place of residence at the time of the event. Maps and gazetteers are important sources for understanding the places you’re researching, as they show the relationship of an area to nearby communities and may be of help in understanding migration patterns.

Note: Tomorrow, in Part II, I’ll look at problems with dates and occupations.

2 thoughts on “Genealogy Tips: Problems with Personal Names, Place Names, Dates & Occupations (Part I)

  1. It is considered bad luck by Ashkenazi Jews to name a child after a living parent, but not by Sephardic Jews who do name children after their parents.

  2. Lorraine,
    Thank you for clarifying this for me and for those whose families include those of Jewish descent. I also believe the same belief (of bad luck to name a child after a living person) is in other cultures as well, and a few even have the belief that it is bad luck to name a child after someone who died. When deciding on a name for a child a parent has to consider beliefs for both culture and religion, preferences of parents/grandparents/siblings, as well as how that name will be perceived or what name it might be shortened to (or nickname). How they ultimately decide the name is astounding. When I was born my mother wanted my name to be “Kimberly Marie” (because no one in the family had that name), but my father wanted to name me for his mother who died when he was 14 (Jennie Mae). When I left the hospital my birth certificate had “Jessica Lyn” and neither knew how it became that. My mother was supposed to be named “Caroline Frances” and her birth certificate had it as “Carolina.” Weird, huh?

    Thanks for writing and hope you have Happy Hunting in your tree!

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