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From the Green Valley News, Wednesday JUL 12 2006, page B5

Genealogy Today, by Betty Malesky

What’s in a Name?

Names—each of us has at least two, and often several—first name, middle name, surname, nickname, married name, professional name, or even an alias to mention a few. The correct spelling is that used by the bearer of the name. Scant attention was paid to spelling prior to the 20th century. Our ancestor may have known how to spell his/her name, but a stranger spelled it the way it sounded. A name may be spelled two or even three different ways in one document.

Names evolved over time with one branch of the family often settling on one spelling and a second branch another. Now that most records are computerized, spelling affects record retrieval forcing the researcher to consider many name variations. Entering a name into an index or database creates another opportunity for error.

Names identify family members, determine relationships, track migrations, and organize our family data. People, places, and events are identified and recognized by their names. Each time a person or place name is copied the spelling in the source should be retained.

It’s common for more than one person of the same name to live in the same area. If several brothers each name a son for his grandfather, several boys born in the same generation will have similar names. In the next generation, the same name may repeat again creating more confusion.

Suffield, Connecticut officials found a unique way to differentiate between its prolific Noah Smith residents. Records indicate Noah1 Smith, Noah2 Smith, Noah3 Smith, and sometimes Noah Sr. and Noah Jr. The first Noah’s sons named sons Noah and so on. The researcher is challenged to be aware when one dies or moves rotating the entire Noah hierarchy. Every record found must be analyzed and correlated with other records to determine whether it’s consistent with what is already known.

Family traditions may claim relationship to a famous person with the family surname, but is the name the same? My grandparents claimed a connection to the journalist Nellie Bly who achieved renown in 1890 by traveling around the world ala Jules Verne’s popular book of the day, Around the World in 80 Days. Nellie Bly was the pen name of The New York World magazine reporter Elizabeth Cochrane. Neither she nor any other Nellie Bly bore any relationship to my family.

Place names are also easily confused. The first towns in New England were named for places settlers had lived in old England. As western lands opened, many cities, towns, and counties were named after early settlers’ eastern hometowns. Town names in one county are often found in another county in the same state. A Boston birth place causes us to assume Boston, Massachusetts, named for Boston in England, but 91 other populated places in the U.S. are also named Boston, five in Kentucky alone. The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) online at is useful for finding geographic locations.

Always record the town, county, and state where an event occurred. For events outside of the U.S., record the country also. When sharing U.S. ancestry with persons in other countries, always include U.S. in place names. A little extra time spent in data entry, pays off when printing genealogical charts and reports for our own files, for a website, or for other family members.

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