The “science” of tracing your family tree, has become an increasingly popular pastime in recent decades. Especially in the United States, people have become fascinated about the origins of their family, as reflected by the numerous Web sites devoted to family histories, and has led to the introduction of computer programs designed to make the compilation of a family tree much easier. We are not intending to reinvent the wheel on this website but will point you in the right direction to get you started.
Initially it’ll cost the amount to visit or phone your family. However, a good Family Tree will require some outlay. For example, unless you are adopted or suffer from total amnesia you already have your own name and date of birth. You probably know your parents names and rough ages, perhaps even your grandparents. This all saves money. In Scotland extract details of Birth, Marriage and Death certificates cost £6 EACH. Full transcripts are £12. To do the job properly you need at least the Birth, Marriage and Death dates of all people in the line you are researching, better still if you can find their occupations and addresses. By simple arithmetic, if you’ve got your parents details Birth and Marriage you’ve saved £18. Your grandparent details, however, could cost £72, Great Grandparents £144, G-Great Grandparents £288 and so on. Frequently direct lines will not provide enough information and you’ll have to find siblings with a middle name to give clues towards previous generations. Families can be very large and if one line has eight children their birth details alone could cost £48
The best place to start is with your relatives. Talking to relatives such as parents, grandparents, uncles, or aunts will help you to sketch out a picture of the generations immediately adjacent to your own with little trouble. It is possible that you will come across another amateur historian in the ranks of your family who may be able to point you in the right direction.
Members of your family may be willing to show you birth and marriage certificates that have useful information recorded upon them. They will be able to illuminate your search with old photographs, postcards, or letters that may shed some fascinating light on your family’s past. If you are lucky, you might possess something like a family bible that lists many of your relatives dating back to some important family event: perhaps immigration to a particular country.
Be sensitive that some relatives may not be as enthusiastic for your project as you are, and don’t push them for information they are unwilling to give. But with a few phone calls you could be well on the way to working out your ancestry to the beginning of the 20th century or even beyond.
Note down the names and dates of birth of your family, and their relationship to each other. Think of the other aspects of the lives of your family past and present that you want to discover. This should at the very least include date of birth and death, occupation and so on. Note these down too.
It is important not to bite off more than you can chew. Set yourself attainable goals such as following your paternal or maternal line back 200 years. Once completed you can go back with the other line. Then you can choose to reach further back in time, or pursue another line that has been thrown up by your research. Obviously, the further you go back in time, the more difficult it is to come up with dependable facts: you may find some lines of enquiry run dry. Be prepared to find some ‘Skeletons in the Family Cupboard’.
Tip: always try to find out Middle Names they can often get you back a few generations.
My own family provided me with comprehensive details reaching back to my G – Great Grandparents. My grandparents birth certificates named both their parents with the mothers’ maiden surnames, addresses and date of marriage so it was fairly easy to find their parents’ marriage certificates which in turn gave ages (not dates of birth) both parents with maiden surname. After that I hit a brick wall for a while until I got in touch with someone on the internet who was researching different branches of the same lines. With ONE middle name of a G – Great Grandfather’s sister I was well on the way to uncover another three generations almost overnight!
Armed with the facts you have gleaned from your family, you can now make sensible use of archives, available both locally and nationally. Local libraries will contain information about local history, and many will have further access to local civil and census information. The main source for civil information in the United Kingdom is the Public Record Office in London, where birth certificates have been stored since 1837. Census records can also be accessed, as can military records: it is more than likely that some members of your family will have served in the forces at some point. As you delve back in time you never know what exciting facts you might unearth about your family, and with time and patience you might even find an entry in the Domesday Book to which you can claim ascendancy!
Don’t panic, it’s taken hundreds of years for your ancestors to grow your family tree don’t expect to be able to trace it instantly. As mentioned before, the further back you go the more difficult to find and unreliable the sources become. There will come a time when you just can’t get back any further. Consider finding out more about the lines you already have. Your G – G – Great Grandfather had four brothers and three sisters …. Who did they marry? Who were their children? Who did the children marry. Latest reports from geneticists state that ALL the world’s population stem from seven individuals from the East Africa region between what is now Kenya and Ethiopia. This means that you are related to AT LEAST a quarter of the world population. You’ll never trace your FULL family tree but you could spend a good few lifetimes trying!
The first clue to who we are and where we came from is our names. Our names are our most personal possession. In many ways they say to the world who we are. They can bring us fortune as well as shame. Our names can give others, rightfully or wrongfully, a predisposition of whether they will like us or dislike us. Historically, our names are a fingerprint, identification, and perhaps a clue as to who you are, and where you came from.
Most western names today come from the Hebrew, German, Latin, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh languages.
In 325 A.D. the Catholic church outlawed the use of pagan names and names from pagan gods. So the use of biblical names became the norm. The church went further in 1545 as it made the use of saints names mandatory before Catholic baptism. As a result, there were only about twenty common names for boys and girls.
Later in the next century the Reformation and Protestant religions rejected Catholic mandates and traditions. So their children were named after New Testament and Old Testament names, rather than just saints names.
Middle names were first introduced by German nobility in the fifteenth century, but did not become common until the seventeen hundreds. The tradition then was to use the mothers maiden name as the middle name. (knowing this may be a good first clue when tracing your ancestry around this period. However, nothing is ever always absolute.)
The use of a “family” name or second name started in Western countries at about the turn of the last millennium, 1,000 years ago. As the population grew, it became more difficult for commerce to know who owed money to whom. If Peter was to actually pay Paul, then it became important to know which Peter owed which Paul. So last names, or descriptive names indicating which Peter or Paul began. At the time, Peter and Paul did not even know or care that a descriptive name was attached to their first name. Nor was the same descriptive name used with each transaction.
It is generally agreed that Western civilized countries developed names from one of four ways. The most popular, with about 43% of all names falling into this category, were LOCATION NAMES. These surnames came from the town, estates, or city where the person lived. Nobles took on the name of their estate, and passed it down to their sons. The peasants took on the names of their village most often, or a distinguishing geographical characteristic. Thus names like Atwater, Atwood, Glen, Green, London, Mill, Newtown, Rivers, etc. came into being.
The second most common source of names, about 33%, are names coming from KINSHIP or SON OF names. You know them: Johnson, Peterson, O’NEILL, MacLaughlin, Janowicz, Mendelssohn, Sanchez, and Bertucci, to name just a few. All meaning son of or descendant of a first named father. However, this was not as simple as it may have appeared.
You see, it took a few centuries and a kings decree for the SON OF names to become organized. Here is why. Suppose Peter had a newborn son. Lets say he proudly named him John Peterson. John, a good common first name, and son of Peter (Peterson) as the last name. That’s simple enough. However, when John Peterson grew up and had a son of his own he proudly give him the name of – James Johnson of course. Why James Johnson you ask? Because James was a wonderful name for a boy, and by all means, he is the son of John right?. So his name was James Johnson. But when James had a son he named him Adam Jamison. Which then lead to Adamson, and so on and so on. And who said tracing your family tree was boring?
So, Peter, Peterson, Johnson, Jamison, and Adamson were five generations of direct descendants. This was confusing.
It wasn’t until Henry V decreed that surnames had to be included on all official papers that the legal process of standardizing family names began. So Adamson stayed Adamson, at least for a while anyway.
The third most common source of names came from OCCUPATIONAL NAMES. Many people think this is the number one source of name derivation, but actually only 15% of names come from this category. This is how we got the Smith, Miller, Taylor, Cooper, Cook, Farmer names, to name just a few. The reason there are so many Smiths, Millers, Taylors, etc., when this is not the most common source of names, was due to immigration.
The last and least popular source of name creation came from NICKNAMES or PET NAMES. If I had a great-grandfather named Redman. This name could have been taken (or given) because someone had a reddish complexion or red hair, for example. A name like Goodman, may have originally described a kind or generous individual. The name Little, Small and Short, named for a small or short man. And, if you have a Stout in your family tree, well…there may have been a reason for that too.
But not all names are of European origin, and some have been around a lot longer than 1,000 years. Such as CHINESE names dating back to 2800 B.C. In 2852 B.C. the Chinese Emperor mandated that all names come from a sacred poem. It wasn’t even a very long poem either. And since most people would not choose to name their family after a preposition for example, this has lead to about only 1,000 names total, of which 60 are common surnames. So few names to spread around a billion people today. In the U.S. there are 1.5 million names used among a population of 1/4 billion. In China there are about 1,000 names used among one billion.
AFRICAN AMERICANS did not get their surnames, for the most part, from their slave owners, as some people assume.
When slaves were brought to America they were given a random first name by the new master. They did not have last names. Nor were they allowed to refer to themselves by their African tribal names. Surnames were not used by African Americans until after they were freed from slavery.
Once freed, they did not name themselves after the masters of their misery. Who would want a constant reminder of a miserable past? But rather they chose names that were well known, or from prestigious families in the south. Many of those names were Irish, Scottish, English or Welsh.
Even then, last names were not always passed on to the next generation. Often, a name was changed to a more “favourable” one whenever they wanted. That is until the draft of World War I and the implementation of Social Security made it more difficult to make such random changes.
Unlike English names, which derived mostly from Location and KINSHIP names, GERMAN names were derived mostly from Occupational names like Kaufman, meaning merchant or Schmidt meaning smith. The second most common source for German names were from colors, such as Braun (brown), Grun (green), Rosen (rose), Roth (red), Schwarz (black) and Weiss (white). Nicknames were the second to last most common source of names followed by location names.
German Jews however were made to take their names by law in the early 1800s. Those who paid certain German officials were given good names and names of beauty. Those who did not pay were given ugly names like Eselskopf meaning ass head, or Saumagen (hogspaunch), Durst (thirst), or Bettelarm (destitute).
The SCOTS had a problem with infant mortality during the Middle Ages. So, If a Scottish father wanted to be sure a son would carry his full name he left nothing to chance…and gave all his sons the same first name. The odds were in his favour this way. He just wasn’t thinking about the frustrated genealogist descendant that would follow 500 years later.
The Scottish also had a practice of changing their last names whenever they moved. The change would be made to please the Lord of the land. So, your Campbell relation may have really been a Fraser or a Macdonald at different times.
Hearing all this, it may seem amazing that we can trace family names at all. But knowing this can actually help you sort out a more accurate puzzle of who you are and from where you came.
We also have a comprehensive online Family Tree for our Kith and Kin to peruse. This is only available to extended family members to whom we will send a Password. Click Here.
I am willing and available to conduct searches for you and charge £25 per hour of internet based research and £30 for hard copy searches plus all related costs for travel, printing details, transcripts or full registry extracts. E-Mail me or use the Contacts Form giving as many details as possible for a free quote.