Thursday, February 14, 2013

Names: A #Genealogical Nightmare or Blessing?

"What's in a name?" by Jack Dorsey

February 13

Get A Different Name 


Happy Get A Different Name Day. Were you born with a name that you don't like to use? I was. I was born Margaret Allison Bruning. My family has been using the name Margaret since they were in Ireland during the 14th century. It's a beautiful name but it doesn't fit me so I go by my middle name. It was given to be by mother for several reasons. Her best friend at the time was named Margaret. My great aunt was named Margaret and because it was a family name. She couldn't think of a middle name for me. She knew she didn't want a Mary Margaret or a Margaret Ann. My mother finally decided to name me Allison after she was watching a talk show about the WWII Bomber Engine company, Allison. You can read more and see the engine  here:

Yes, I'm named after the Allison Transmission Company.

My mother use to call me her blonde bomber. When I was in High School and was contemplating changing my name to Allison, my grandfather took me to a museum and showed me the "hunk of metal" that my mother named me after. I changed my name from Margaret to Allison when I entered college but every time someone called me Allison my mother couldn't stop laughing. I've been using the name Allison since 1994. It took my mother a year to get use to people calling me by my middle name. I never legally changed it, although I had contemplated it, out of respect for my heritage. 

Naming Patterns
Names can give you alot of information when you are researching your family tree. If you are working on your family's history there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to names. 

  • Name Recycling  
    • During the 17th through 19th centuries it was common for parents to recycle a name. For example, if James died as a baby his parents would name their next born son James. So if you see the name pop up more than once when researching your ancestor's family then you will need to check the dates. More than likely one of their children died young. That was a common occurrence during that time period.
  • Name Change
    • Immigrants. Often times when immigrants came to the United States they would either change their first. last or even both names in order to Americanize themselves. This happened to my family when my father's parents immigrated from Germany. I had always thought it had but it took me years to prove it. I found a document where my Great Uncle Albert signed our last name as BrĂ¼ning when he immigrated. The family removed the .. over the u in order for our last name to look more American. 
    • Native Americans: Native American names were often changed from their culture to an English one when they were Christianized. If you know where your ancestor was Christianized then you can go to those records and look them up. Unfortunately, Native Americans do not record their history through written records. If you are dealing with a Native American heritage and know the tribe in which you are descended from it is best to contact that tribe for further help. 
    • A change through time. This happens alot in the United States. For example, my maternal grandfather's name was Carr. The Carr name is not the original last name of our ancestor. Anyone with the last name Carr, Kerr, Ker, or Carre in the United States are related through a common ancestor with the last name Kerr. Another reason a change through time may happen is because somewhere down the line someone mispelled their name on a document. This has happened plenty of times and since the record is legal it legally changes a person's last name. Be careful when you are researching documentation. Don't just assume because the name doesn't match that it's not your ancestor. Compare the information you have with the one on the record then make your decision. 
    • African-Americans. African-American last names can be tricky because slaves did not use last names until the 19th amendment freed them. Their families had been scattered throughout the United States. In an effort to find their missing loved ones, African Americans took the name of the plantation they had been on and used that as their last name. For example, if I was a slave from the Bishop plantation then I would call myself Allison Bishop. This means, that the genealogist has to be careful when trying to determine kinship through the last name because not all "Bishops" are actually going to be kin. Also if my fictitious daughter was on a different plantation she wouldn't have my new last name but a different one. You can see where this might become problematic?
  • Naming Patterns
    • If you don't know the first name of your ancestor but you do know the culture they came from you might be able to determine the name from traditional naming patterns. Naming patterns are common with the Irish and British but there are other cultures who use them as well. Not every culture has the same patterns so be sure that you research your ancestors culture before you try to determine your ancestor's first name. Here's an example of a naming pattern. This one is from Ireland.


  1. Fascinating, and informative post. Recently, I've been doing a lot of genealogical research, and I always stop to wonder how and why people received their first names. Thanks for writing this!