My Ancestor Has Multiple Names. Which Name Do I Use on My Family Tree?

FamilySearch Family Tree Which name do I use?

Do you ever cringe when someone gets your name wrong? My husband doesn’t because his name is pretty hard to mess up- Andrew and Andy. For me, my mother gave me a name that people rarely say right at first glance- Devon. There’s one way that when pronounced, I hear nails scratching down the chalkboard and shudder.

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,, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, or paper records, you have one line for the name of your ancestor. There are additional places to record alternate names, but what do you write in the name blank?

VIDEO: What is your ancestor's name for a family tree?
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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:

  1. Record the name as it appears in the earliest document for the ancestor.

  2. Record all variations of the name.

However, there are problems.

  1. As you’re researching an ancestor, you often do not come across the earliest recording of their name. What do you do?

  2. The earliest record of the name is suspected to be incorrect even though it pre-dates other documents. What do you do?

  3. A child was placed for adoption within the first week of their birth. Their name was changed, and an additional birth record was created with this second given name or surname. What do you do?

  4. An individual changed their name at some point in their life (Anglicized their surname, hides from the law, disowns their family, or is disowned by their family). What do you do?

The more I research, the more the principle guidelines become roadblocks than assistants. 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. 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 always alter the name as you uncover more records.

If Wm’s wife is Mary Townsley, then only record her first name rather than the likely married name and not the same surname. If you discover later that her maiden name is the same as her husband’s surname, then you can the name into the field at that time. This is particularly the case when working with online trees. If you add Townsley for Mary, computer hints will be generated for Mary Townsley rather than a 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 record and provide a 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 and leave a note that you changed the name based on this new piece of evidence.

What happens when a name conflicts in genealogy records?

This is when things become speculative. One strategy is to use the name that person signed in their own hand. 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 case can be made that the birth record trumps the death certificate.

However, if a child was adopted shortly after birth never used their birth name, the case could be made that their adopted name receives top billing. In my grandmother's case, she was born Marie Anderson but 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. Top billing goes to Louise, and the name Marie is listed as an alternative name.

When an ancestor anglicizes their name or modifies it to fit the country they are in, which name do you use? One ancestor is Joseph Geißler. I could anglicize the name to Joseph Geiszler or Geissler, but he didn’t live long enough to have his name lock 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 would 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.

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