My collateral ancestor Mintie was called by her middle name Lucinda in almost every record during her lifetime *except* the bible record above and one census:
Nicknames, middle names and initials will get you every time in genealogical research. They still get me every now and then and it kinda drives me just a little bit crazy.
That’s in addition to all the ways someone’s name was misspelled or transcribed incorrectly. It all leads to the number one statement I hear from researchers:
“I can’t find [insert ancestor’s name]. They just disappeared.”
Though some are indeed missing, others are just waiting to be found.
The Missing Game
Fortunately, I have never gone by any nickname and there aren’t really many attractive ways to shorten Robyn (although I do have a friend or two that call me Rob.) However, this did not apply to my ancestors.
Our ancestors were referred to in numerous ways which complicates our research. But understanding this basic fact can help us as we move forward reconstructing their lives.
Remember that our ancestors weren’t filling out many of these records themselves. It is the census enumerator or a court clerk who is writing the information down.
Then there’s the complication of what a person heard versus what was actually said. A heavy accent had me searching for the surname Murmon for several years, when the name was actually Merriman.
Being aware of these traps can help us to find our people. It’s going to take much more time than just entering their names in a search box and saying “they aren’t there” when any search comes up empty. I cannot stress this enough.
We should get in the habit of reading the actual census images. At least we should read through the district where we expect to find the person. This may be the district we found them in a different census year. I have lost count of how many ancestors I have found this way.
Be on the constant lookout for ancestors who will appear by their first name in one record, and by their nickname in others. It’s easy to think of Billy as a nickname for William, but do we know to look for Daisy or Peggy for Margaret? Sally for Sarah?
One surprise I had in my research was discovering that the name Nace was a nickname for Nathaniel. I would have never figured that!
Nicknames can turn Susan in one record:
Into Sooky in another:
It’s why I never found one of Matilda’ marriages under Matilda, but under the nickname Tilda:
I thought her name might be Virginia. But her first name was Lavinia.
Rena Lowery was called that in almost every record, even her daughter’s death certificate:
But her full name was actually Arena Lowery, shown here (barely legible) in her father’s household:
There are also those who used nicknames because their first name was just a mouthful. My collateral ancestor Phlenarie Holt shown here (even I can’t pronounce his name):
…decided he would just be Flynn Holt:
Just google “nicknames in genealogy” and plenty of websites will alert you to the most common ones, like this list at Familysearch. Have that list ready as you search. Cyndi’s List also has a nice collection of nicknames.
Probably even more common than nicknames are persons who appear in some records by their first name, and in others by their middle name as I mentioned with Mintie Lucinda.
James Edward King’s World War I draft card below tells us he was born in Hardin County, Tennessee:
But the first two censuses that record him called him Ed and Edward King, not James:
My ancestor Mike Fendrick’s wife was called Eliza in her marriage record and in the 1900 census:
but called “Jane E” in 1880:
And guess what? She was remembered by her descendants as Katie.
Related to this is the problem of records that use only initials for the person’s name. Matilda’s marriage record wasn’t to Isaac Garner, but to I.J. Garner:
All of this is easier said than done since at the time of our research we often don’t know their middle names and nicknames. But as we research further, that should change.
–As those middle initials appear in the census and other records, record them and be sure to use them in future searches.
—Broaden your search to a wider variety of records, such as land, court and tax records. They will provide more names.
–Keep that list of nicknames nearby and be sure to search for them not just in the census, but in all other sources you research.
–Use not just Ancestry, but the free Familysearch website to search for your ancestors in census and other records.
–Get in the habit of reading through the census neighborhood (the actual images).
–Make a timeline. A timeline can often reveal if one person is in records using different names.
–Record everything you search for and the results, so that you won’t repeat that search again.
–Remember to search using just initials. Certain occupations, like the ministers in my family, were often referred to by their initials especially in newspapers.
All of this keeps us on our toes and keeps us coming back for more, I suppose. There are certainly times I think I will never finish my research!
I think part of why we love genealogy so much is the satisfaction of solving even the tiniest of mysteries;)
In the comments below, I’d love to hear from readers about what names your ancestors were hiding under in your research and how you found them.
P.S.- I wanted to call this post something a little more…shall we say off-color;) but I decided to go with ‘doggone.’
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.