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Tips When Using Surnames In Your Genealogical Searches

Aug 18, 2007
In today's society, surnames are generally known as last names or even family names. Except for those who choose to drop them, such as Madonna or Cher, virtually everyone in the modern world has one. In some cultures, they are written before given names (what we would call a "first name").

While surnames are now taken for granted, there was a time when they were not common. In some more remote areas, they're still not. People were identified from those who shared the given name by housing location, occupation, physical characteristics or other criteria. It is believed that these descriptions gave rise to the first surnames.

Surnames have evolved and changed over the centuries. When researching your family genealogy, it is important to consider ways in which the surnames you are studying might have changed. Spelling is one of the most common changes. If your last name is 'Smith' it might at one time have been 'Smyth' or even 'Smythe'.

Dangerous lineage and persecution caused many people to completely drop their family surname and replace it with a new one. Secrecy for these people was key to survival, and many people simply made up new surnames to be able to hide or blend in with a community.

Scattered families who fled one location to find safety in another often changed their surname, making the search for the truth rather difficult.

Many websites and books can help those building a family genealogy to research their surnames. Keep in mind that most of these sources give general information about the name that may or may not directly apply to your particular genealogical research.

Document your sources carefully in case you need to revisit them or change items. Some sources are also available to help you determine spelling and other variants that may affect your family genealogy.

Of special genealogical research interest are maiden names. Finding the original surnames of your female ancestors can be especially tricky. Female names were commonly dropped or never recorded because women were considered the property of their fathers and husbands.

When researching female names, keeping in mind a few tips may aid in your genealogical research. The best place to seek female names is in marriage records. Not all marriages were recorded, but marriage records should provide the full names of both partners.

In addition, check cemetery records, as your female ancestor might never have married. Finally, look at divorce decrees. While divorces were difficult and expensive for women to obtain, many more women filed than actually received the divorce. Nonetheless, the record of filing may exist.

Researching surnames is a fascinating and interesting branch of genealogical research. You may follow many dead ends prior to reaching a solid lead, but this should encourage rather than discourage you. You never know when a lead will circle back to solve the mystery of a former dead end.
About the Author
Discover more about using surnames in your genealogical searches from Mike Selvon portal where a free gift awaits you. We appreciate your feedback at our Genealogy blog.
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