12 June 2020

4 Ways to Handle Names in Your Family Tree

What's in a name? History, ancestry, culture…everything.

How do you record people's names in your family tree? Each time someone asks this question, I say it's a matter of personal preference. But, to be honest, some methods are better than others.

For a professional opinion, see Kimberly Powell's "8 Rules for Properly Recording Names in Genealogy" on ThoughtCo.

While I do not capitalize last names as Ms. Powell suggests, she does offer sound advice. I find the CAPITALIZATION to be distracting and unnecessary.

Here's my take on recording names in a family tree.

1. Maiden Names vs. Married Names

A woman's maiden name is the holy grail. You can't find her ancestors without learning her maiden name. That's why I always use a woman's maiden name. You may say, "But her married name makes it easy to see who she married." Actually, your family tree makes it easy to see who she married. And if she married 2 or more times, you're not accounting for at least one husband's last name.

This became a non-starter for me when I learned that Italian women keep their maiden name for life. The vast majority of women in my family tree lived their lives in Italy. I've told my husband that if I die first, he'd better damn well put my maiden name on my marker.

2. Given Names, Known As Names, and Nicknames

I prefer to record each person's name as it appears on their birth record, if available. A person may not "go by" their given name throughout their life. My great grandmother was born Marianna but often used her late sister's name Mariangela.

You can record multiple names for a person, but I make their given name the preferred name.
You can record multiple names for a person, but I make their given name the preferred name.

You can use a person's given name as their primary NAME fact. Add a 2nd NAME fact to record their preferred name. Add a 3rd NAME fact to record a nickname. Many of my parents' family members had nicknames like Baldy or Blondie. It's a great idea to capture those nicknames, too. You can always use a person's Notes section to explain how, where, and why people used a nickname.

No one knew my grandmother by her birth name of Maria Carmina. That's how I've recorded her in my family tree because it was a major discovery. I can record Mary as a 2nd NAME fact.

3. Spelling Changes

Speaking of Grandma, as soon as I began this wonderful hobby, I discovered a name change. At birth, Grandma and her 4 siblings had the family name Sarracino, with 2 Rs. That spelling is on all 5 marriage records. After that, the family went by Saracino with 1 R. My 2 Sarracino great uncles produced 2 Saracino kids. The male is legally a Saracino with 1 R. So is his son and his son's wife and children.

I recorded Grandma's generation as Sarracino, but her brothers' descendants as Saracino.

Things get confusing when a name is changed, but I honor the at-birth legal name.
Things get confusing when a name is changed, but I honor the at-birth legal name.

Things are trickier with a family that came from Italy. Their original surname was diPaola. In America, different parts of the family adopted different spellings. There's diPoalo, DePoalo, DePaul, DePaulo. It gets harder to see who's related and how.

While searching for my connection to a DNA match, I didn't know which spelling was hers. Her family tree gave me 1 married couple's names as help. But that worked, and I have placed her in my tree. She gets the same spelling variation as her father.

4. Unknown Names

I used to record "Unknown" wherever I had a missing first name or last name in my family tree. It surprised me when a cousin looked at a tree printout and said, "Oh, I'm sure they knew her name."

That left me open to suggestions for a better way to record someone with a missing name. Along came Ancestry's chief genealogist, Crista Cowan. She mentioned it in one of her "Barefoot Genealogist" lessons on YouTube. She uses a blank (_____), consisting of 5 underscore characters, to show that a name is missing.

A blank line is something anyone who's ever taken a test can understand.
A blank line is something anyone who's ever taken a test can understand.

I do all my work in Family Tree Maker. The people with _____ for a last name appear at the top of the alphabetical index. On Ancestry.com, they're at the end, after last names beginning with Z. The blanks show me I need to keep trying to find that missing name.

My family tree is all about origins and roots. (Isn't yours?) I cherish all the family names and all the given names. I pay homage to my roots by recording and displaying the original names. Their names are everything.

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1 comment:

  1. Howland Davis13 June, 2020 13:36

    For my unknowns (and seeing that you also have several with the same first names, etc.), I put in "[spouse of Jim Smith], Jane." Legacy Family Tree doesn't like it but that is what I do. I can print a list of all those names that start with [ and look them over; sometimes I can think, "I know his/her name now!"