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4. Common Family Names – Trying to trace the genealogy of a family with a common surname can often be a challenge. It often comes down to probabilities. For example, wading through page after page of listings of Smiths is not an enjoyable chore. One way that you can tilt the probabilities in your favour is to look at the names of all the immediate family members. Initially, focus your research on the person in the family with the least common first name. This will increase your chances of finding a successful match and also hopefully speed up the search process.

5. Short Family Names – People with short family names often mistakenly think there is little likelihood of a misspelling of their family name in old records. After all, how could you misspell an easy family name like Ball. Well, it is not so much the possibility of a misspelling as the possibility that the spelling of the family name has evolved over time. For example, there is a distinct possibility that a family name that ended in a double letter, like the double ‘l’ in Ball at one time could have had an ‘e’ on the end of the name. Ball becomes Balle, Tall becomes Talle, Mann becomes Manne. Always consider this possibility.

6. Aliases – In historical records, people used aliases all the times. A couple of common aliases: using the middle name as a last name, using the mother’s maiden name as a last name and anglicising a non-English family name.

7. Naming Conventions – Most families and many cultures have naming conventions for first and middle names. It is worth asking family members if they know of any naming conventions in the family. Knowledge of naming conventions can often be used to determine the names of the parents and grandparents. For example, it was common in Victorian England that the first name of the first male child was named after the father’s father. The second male child was named after the mother’s father. The third male child was named after the father. The first female child was named after the mother’s mother and the second female child is named after the father’s mother and the third female was named after the mother. You can use this information to take a reasonable guess as to the first names of the parents and grandparents if you know the names and order of birth of all the children.

Of course, this naming convention had a downside. Children of the period often died at childbirth or at a very young age. It was not uncommon for the name of a parent or grandparent to be recycled or reused and given to the next child that was born. To put this another way, if you have an ancestor with a large family and two of the children have the same name, this tells you two things: the first child likely died before the second child was born and the name has great significance to the family.

This brings up another point that needs to be mentioned. Some genealogists do not feel comfortable recording in their family tree the names of children that died very young. We feel you should make the effort. After all, it is your family. If your family will not remember these young children, then who will?

8. Surnames Beginning With a Vowel – Most genealogists are familiar with the need to check spelling variations of family names in old records. People tracing American ancestors need to become familiar with Soundex (see What is Soundex and How Does Soundex Work). However, there is a special case for family names that begin with the vowels a, e, i, o, u and y. These names are often misspelled in records by people adding a consonant in front of the vowel. The most common consonant added to a family name in this kind of situation is an H. So a name like All becomes Hall, And becomes Hand, Illier becomes Hillier, etc. The reverse is also true for all names that begin with H. Consider searching the family name with the H removed.

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