Find Your Ancestry: What’s in a Name?

To find your ancestry often requires searching ship manifests.You have to realize that when set out to find your ancestry and build your family tree that you are going to get stuck occasionally.  It’s almost certainly going to happen, so I thought I would write some posts and give you some tips on what you can do to get going again.

One of the first things that you should do is to look for variations in the spelling of the names and even variations in the names themselves.

Let me give you some real life examples here.  One of my great grandfather’s last names was “Caerbert”.  That name, appeared in different documents as, “Corbett” and “Caarbert”.  I found the documents by using his birthday and his first name, which happened to be correct in the above mentioned documents.

Another family had the last name of “Harrison” and for the life of me, I could not find their passage to America.  I knew the husband had not come alone and that he had brought his wife and children with him based on other documents I’d found on him.  I finally found him under the name “Harris” by simply searching passenger documents for his age and “Harris *”.   The asterisk in most search engines means a wild card, so it gave me any last name that began with Harris – such as Harris itself – and that was how I found them.  For whatever reason, they used variations of the husband and wife’s first names and so I have to assume they were trying to stay hidden until they were out of the country, which was when they went back to their actual names.  I confirmed it was them as all the children had the correct names and everyone’s place and dates of birth were factual.

Find your ancestry, Harrison example

“John Harris”, wife “Fanny”, and 5 children listed on the ship manifest.

That brings up an interesting point when you’re trying to find your ancestry and the person you’re looking for may have “Americanized” their name.  Depending on how determined you are, you may have to start making suppositions and going off of those.  I have gone to different translation websites and seen what name a Russian immigrant would have had if their American name was Elizabeth, etc.  Then you can use the supporting pieces of information you DO know and search that way.  If you have that the name was likely, Yelizaveta (Елизавета in Cyrillic writing), you can then use her birth date, birth place, likely dates of travel and any other facts that you have to narrow down the search.

For last names it can be a little tougher and you have to use more ancestry detective work and read and do more research, such as done with Harrison above.

I have to say I am always happy when the person I am looking for or someone close to them has an unusual first name.  I start looking using that unusual name as it is likely to give you the fewest choices.

There you go – my first article on how to un-stick your searches to find your ancestry using name variations and your known facts.  Let me know how it works for you or get back to me if you have any questions.


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