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I often find myself pulling my hair out after fumbling with the various spellings of ancestral surnames. All family historians experience it; coming upon documents that present their ancestors with surnames spelled ever so slightly from other records. And as I struggled with such an issue this past weekend, I pondered the evolution of surnames; discovering intriguing and sometimes amusing facts.

The use of surnames is a fairly modern phenomenon. During the dark ages and biblical times, people were typically referred to by their given names; distinguishing them by their locality such as "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Leonardo De Vinci." But the world grew and the use of a surname became necessary in order to identify individuals.

Many surnames were patronymic: a derivative of the person's father's given name such as Johnson (son of John) or they evolved from family occupations such as Carpenter or Squire. And even geographical or place names were provided like Brook, Lake or Rivers.

Nicknames of a person's physical characteristics or personality traits like Stern or Gentile became common as well as individuals named after animals such as Fox or Bear.

And then there is the issue of the spelling of a surname. How many times have we run across census records only to find that our ancestral surname is spelled incorrectly? The fact is, the consistent spelling of words is a recent trend; only practiced within the last 100 or so years.

Surname spellings changed frequently, dependent on how they were pronounced. The Ellis Island officials often changed the spellings of the surnames of immigrants as they processed their records; scripting them with a "new world" spelling.

So, though fun to ponder, how does any of this really help with our genealogical search?

Studying the meaning and evolution of an ancestral surname can provide clues to further your research. And recently, while I was in another mad hair-tasseled frenzy to learn about one of my ancestors, I stumbled upon the Internet Surname Database: a well developed website providing captivating historical summaries of thousands of surnames.

I found that my Matthews surname was English and Scottish and that Captain Samuel Matthews was one of the earliest settlers in the New World. Another one of my surnames, Jack, evolved from the French name Jacques and John Jack was one of the first settlers in America. And Beatty was a boundary name, equal in both England and Scotland.

And then there is my maiden name, Capps. The surname I was born with and the one that is closest to my identity. As one would expect, the English name was occupational; given to someone who was a "maker of caps and hats." The Capps name was also patronymic, meaning the "son of Capp."

But most amusing was the use of the Capps surname as a nickname: given to "someone who wore a particularly noticeable cap or hat!"

And so, I will continue to utilize the Internet Surname Database; adding it to my vast array of bookmarks for future genealogical exploration. And who knows,  rather that "pulling my hair out" over frustrating misspellings of ancestral surnames; I will instead sit pompous wearing a fabulously, flamboyant hat!

Proudly relishing in the history of my birth surname.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
(Source: AAG International Research)
 
 
It is amazing how the ever changing world of technology has given rise to this rapidly growing hobby we call genealogy. What only a few years ago was an interesting past time for the occasional family historian, today with the increasing release of digital records, genealogy has grown into a full-time business for many. It certainly has at times, taken over the majority of my 'free time', with a daily dose of googling for ancestors during my weekends and evenings.

But with the invention of the Internet, human interaction often becomes 'old school' and we sometimes forget that genealogy is a social science made possible by others sharing their family histories with one another. We sit for hours and type away, entering new names within old search engines, sometimes providing new pieces to our puzzle, and sometimes not. And if I were to count up the number of hours spent in front of my computer over the years, I am certain I would be shocked at the results.

With the discovery of my Irish ancestors in Michigan, I fervently tapped away on the keyboard, searching every corner within the cyberspace community. Placing keywords within my Google search-bar, I was presented with one of my more exciting discoveries: The Irish Genealogical Society of Michigan. With a scroll through each page, I came across the societies' surname registry. It looked interesting, a publication from the society, released for Detroit's Tricentennial Celebration of 2001. With a glance at the title, I paused, giving the publication consideration, then continued on my way. Occasionally giving a click back, staring at the title, and wondering 'could my ancestors be hidden within its' pages?' I once again move on, leaving the website to check other results from my hasty search.

As the days pass, I began to reflect back on the little publication from the Detroit society. Once again reviewing the website, clicking on the page to provide description of the $12.00 book, I thought, 'why not?' Considering time and money that I have invested over the years in my genealogical 'obsession', $12.00 is nothing in comparison. A 'spit in the bucket', my Irish ancestors might say, so I printed off the order form, signed my check, and ran to the post office. Hoping for more answers but expecting none.

With a pleasantly quick response from the society, the 190-page publication appeared on my doorstep. Hastily flipping through the long list of Irish surnames, I quickly found two entries for Crawford. Realizing one of the entries provided the name of the Michigan township my great grandmother was born, I immediately went to the cross reference for the surname submitter list. A listing of phone numbers was provided and I stared at the number for the submitter of my Crawford surname. 'I'm certain this number won't still be good', I thought, realizing the publication was several years old. I put the book away to go about my weekend 'must dos', but I could not refocus my mind away from the book.

...And so I took the risk. I picked up the phone, punched in the phone number and a voice was immediately on the other side. At first sounding uncertain as to my inquiry, the woman on the other end began to understand the nature of my call. And with increasing excitement, she confirmed that our ancestors were one in the same.

Many phone calls have been made since our initial contact and genealogical records have been exchanged. But I feel I have learned much more than she: Receiving amazing documents, providing answers to blank spaces on my family tree. A large envelope of new records of my Michigan ancestors is now filed away. None found within the Internet but discovered as a result of an almost extinct genealogical technique: human interaction. The sharing of personal histories, family bible records, notes passed through the generations that are not held within cyberspace but filed away inside office drawers and attic boxes.

So what can you, the family historian, take from my ramblings of the day? When you come across a surname list or a book of personal history, consider ordering the publication. Keep in mind, there is most likely someone in the 'real' world, holding the information you have been  searching for :'Real records within 'real' books from 'real' people.

For a general surname list to connect with other researchers, go to Rootsweb.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl