Devon Noel Lee
My Ancestor Has Multiple Names. Which Name Do I Use on My Family Tree?
Names are necessary, and in genealogy, names help us find more records and details about our ancestors. When you discover a new ancestor through your research, how do you manage their name as you acquire more records about that ancestor?
In other words, as you find records about your ancestor, what name should you use on an online tree’s profile about that ancestor?
When you’re using FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, or paper records, you have one line for the name of your ancestor. Of course, there are other places to record alternate names, but what do you write in the name blank?
What Do You Put in the Name Blank on a Genealogy Chart?
Let’s say you discovered a birth record for your great-grandmother that birth record identifies her parents’ names. Names you have never seen before. Hooray! That’s exciting.
It is exciting, but this is when beginning genealogists often have difficulty. They want to add this new relative to the family tree, but they’re unsure which names to use. When they discover spelling variations, should they change the names? If so, how do they decide which name is the most correct when records conflict?
There are two principle guidelines in genealogy:
Record the name as it appears in the earliest document for the ancestor.
Record all variations of the name.
However, there are problems.
As you’re researching an ancestor, you often do not come across the earliest recording of their name. What do you do?
The earliest record of the name is suspected to be incorrect even though it pre-dates other documents. What do you do?
Suppose a couple adopted a child week after her birth. Her adopted parents changed her name and ordered a new birth record with the new name. What do you do?
Perhaps an individual changed his name at some point in his life. For example, he might have Anglicized his surname, hidden from the law, disowned his family, or the family disowned him. What do you do?
The more I research, the more the principle guidelines become roadblocks than assistants. However, Andy and I have some suggestions for you to consider when you are unsure what name to use.
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Suggestions For Deciding Which Surnames to Use on Your Family Tree
First, as you research, record a name as it appears on the first record, you discover the new ancestor. For example, if the first source says Wm Townsley, then write Wm Townsley.
Don’t automatically turn Wm into William. What if the name is Williamson, Willingham, or another abbreviation? You can alter the name if you uncover more records.
If Wm Townsley’s wife is Mary Townsley, only record her first name rather than the likely married name. However, if you discover later that her maiden name is the same as her husband’s surname, then you can add Townsley back into the last name field.
Follow the blank surname tip, particularly when working with online trees. If you add Townsley for Mary, the algorithms will generate hints for Mary Townsley rather than Mary, who married Wm Townsley.
As you research, change the name as you find more complete details if a birth record names your great-grandma’s father as “S A Thomson,” record S A as their given names. When you discover a census record that indicates S stands for “Steven,” update the given name to Steven. If you uncover another document that uses the middle name of “Andy,” then alter the middle name to reflect the full name as Steven Andy Thomson.
As you discover additional records that expand S A Thomson to a full name, update what is recorded on your paper or electronic chart to reflect the complete name. Then leave a note that you changed the first name based on this new piece of evidence.
What happens when a name conflicts in genealogy records?
One strategy is to use the name that person signed in their hand. For example, an adult knows what their name is, and that could be the determination of the ‘top billing’ name while including the alternative names. One such record where individuals signed their names in their own hands is a military draft record.
You can make the case to use the name the parents gave them. If you have a death record indicating that a name was Thomas Michael Sauer and a birth record provides evidence his name was Tomas Mihael Saur, which name do you record in the ‘name’ spot on your genealogy charts or in your online tree?
A researcher could make the case that the birth record trumps the death certificate.
However, suppose a couple adopted a child shortly after his birth, and he never used his birth name. Then, you could argue that his adopted name receives top billing.
In my grandmother's case, she was born Marie Anderson. She was adopted within days of her birth and was forever known as Louise Long. She never referred to herself as Marie Anderson except when she celebrated all of her names at a birthday party. Therefore, top billing goes to Louise. The name, Marie, appears as her alternative name.
When an ancestor anglicizes their name or modifies it to fit the country they are in, which name do you use?
One of my ancestors is Joseph Geißler. I could anglicize the name to Joseph Geiszler or Geissler, but he didn’t live long enough to have his name locked into one of those variations. Thus, Geißler is the way I spell his name. However, his son was born Henry Geißler but finally locked into Geiszler, and I record that as his adult name.
Whichever name you give top billing, ensure you record your reasoning for the choice.
Andy and I share more recommendations on which name to use when your ancestor has many in this video on YouTube.