Searching for Surnames Online

Searching for SurnamesSurnames are an important aspect of genealogy. They are usually your first port of call when cross referencing the national index for evidence of your ancestors. It is one of the most common ways of putting together a family tree to search for ancestors via your surname. It is not always a simple process, however, as this guide aims to show. Tracing surnames is a sometimes a difficult process particularly when you either have a common name or there does not seem to be any evidence of it beyond this century.

What you should consider- is the origins of surnames and how history, culture and the evolution of language and its varying meanings, when searching for ancestors.

One of the most convenient ways to search for ancestors is online. You can do this by surname for almost all searches of records. The easiest place to start is by looking at the Census online. You can easily choose which Census to look at, enter your own surname into the relevant box, press return and you will get a list of people with the same surname. This type of search is common to many of the other online indexes including birth, death and marriages records, armed forces records and religious records. When searching for surnames it is important to have a look at more than one of these sources as it is quite possible in a national Census, recorded by hand, that people were overlooked. People were recorded as living wherever they happened to be staying and it is quite likely other circumstances may have prevented people being recorded on the national Census. For example some people may have travelled abroad for a short time, some might have been in prison and people in poorhouses and orphanages are more likely to have been overlooked. This means that a surname not found on the Census might be found on old prison records or poorhouse documents or shipping lists. It is also important to be aware that prior to 1841 people were recorded under just one name and the Census was little more than a head count. This makes it difficult to track surnames through this primary source but there are other avenues of inquiry.

Other records may have given out more detailed information such as the religious documentation which stretches as far back as 1537 when Thomas Cromwell ordered baptisms, marriages and burials to be recorded. However this meant that unrecognised churches were ignored and sometimes the books containing this information were never completed. Often as people were not well educated in those times it was difficult to record the information and what was recorded varied in detail. As spelling and language was not yet standardised handwriting varied and in turn spellings and records of surnames varied according to who recorded the information.

You still may not get very far when searching for your surname on any of these online resources. What you could do is enter variations on your surname and try to find ancestors in this way. One way of doing this is by varying the spelling so that you can see if your ancestors spelt the family name in a different way. You can do this using the phonetic spelling (using the phonetic alphabet which you can also look up online), adding silent letters such as 'H' or 'E' so that Crills becomes Chrills or variation with a 'y' so that Smith becomes Smyth or Smythe. You can also vary the spelling using different vowels such as 'E' in place of 'I' or vice versa for Englutt or Inglutt. You could also try letter transpositions, typing errors including adjacent letters such as Jim and Kim. You could also try removing the suffix or superlative and search for 'Gold' not 'Goldsmith'. The prefix however, is key to some names which have a patronymic origin such as O'Brien. It is a good idea to search these types of name according to spelling variation as the practice of this particular prefix is longstanding.

Another way in which you could have problems in searching for ancestors through surnames is if you have a common surname. You could do the search by adding location and time period as well to narrow the list down. You can also add common genealogical terms such as 'family' and 'cemetery'. Look at maiden names that are less common and search these instead to find your ancestors or search both names in conjunction with one another.

Using these methods of varying spelling, specifying your searches and performing searches on more than one collection of records does not guarantee finding ancestors via surname but can aid searches considerably.

Next: The International Genealogical Index (IGI)