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Your Ancestor’s Many Names

Your Ancestor’s Many Names

This is not a blog post about cookbooks or food history. But it does use a cookbook as an example.

This is a blog post with an important search reminder. That reminder is: You need to search for your ancestor using more than one name for that ancestor.

Whenever I give presentations, I stress the importance of searching websites using name variations for an ancestor. These name variations could include initials, creative spellings (misspellings), abbreviations, and nicknames. If it is a married female ancestor, you must consider not only her birth name but also variations of her husband's name/s. During certain time periods women, but not all women worldwide, went by Mrs. [his name].

Sometimes as we search one database or record set and find our ancestor, we assume that’s it and there’s no need to continue our search. After all, we found what we need. But in reality, when we think of a database that contains something like court records or historical newspapers, it’s possible that our ancestor could be mentioned more than once and in different ways.

A cookbook that I’m studying reinforced the need for exhaustive searching when we conduct genealogy searches. The 1916 Eastern Star Cookbook from Huntington Park, California includes the names of women and men who contributed recipes.

As I went through the cookbook, I noticed that some women were mentioned multiple times and by different versions of her name.

Consider recipes submitted under these names:

  • Laura Brewer
  • Laura M Brewer
  • Miss Brewer

Now Laura and Laura M might very well be the same woman or it could be two different women. Miss Brewer is still a possibility for Laura. But I would need to research all three to verify. If it’s not the same woman, it could be a relative. That too would need to be further researched.


One woman is listed four different ways in this cookbook:

  • Ollie Cowdin
  • Ollie I. Cowdin
  • Mrs. Ollie Cowdin
  • O. C.

One name variation that is missing is her husband’s name, Mrs. [His name] Cowdin. Now if I were to continue this research on a genealogy website, I would also want to search for her using these and her other name variations based on her maiden name.


Why does this cookbook example matter? Although most of us for the most part go by one name throughout our lives we need to consider that a name can appear in any number of ways for various reasons or no reason at all. Taking that into consideration, we need to keep a list of name variations for our ancestors and use that to search for them in genealogically relevant records.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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Oh, indeed! In my husband's family, three out of four of his nuclear family (including him) were/are known by their middle names, not their first names. Only his mother was exempt from this because she didn't have a middle name! A great-great grandfather of mine was known variously as M. H. Packard, Mathew Hale Packard, Mathew H. Packard, and Hale Packard. I have definitely learned to search by more than one name or spelling of a name. Excellent post!

Oh how true; but it can get much worse. I was indexing Naturalization papers this week and a woman came to America under the name Biell Moscovcha and changed it to Belle Hyman! A geneaolgist's nightmare.


Enjoyed your blog on multiple variations of names. It is a pitfall to beware for all genealogists, no matter skill level. I have been mislead by middle initials, right first names and surnames with wrong middle names or middle initials. Without multiple sources it is very difficult to determine proof.

Women are not the only issue, either. My French Canadian ancestors are an example. My great-grandfather, Levi, also went by the name of Eli. Someone more experienced than I am in geneological research explained to me that the two names were often used interchangeably. When I later found his baptismal record, his name was listed as Hylaire. It took me awhile to realize that the French pronunciation of Hylaire sounds very similar to the English pronunciation of Eli. Same guy!
I also discovered that one of Levi's brothers, named Augustus, was often also referred to as Sam or Samuel. I have no idea how that came about.

How often do we hear from a non researching family member - you've spelt their name incorrectly.

To add to the confusion, some people have hyphenated their name, then dropped the hyphen. I'm a case in point. When I got married I hyphenated my maiden and married names, but when I was pregnant with out firstborn I dropped the hyphen (though kept the maiden name as a second middle name). Now I'm working my way through putting the hyphen back into my name and joining up married and maiden names again.

Thank you very good read Ian not sure if my names have been spelt working my account where hacked and all family ancestry information I had that I searched for ages for was stolen and people keep going on about a data base of whitch I have no clue about or how long it’s been going on or how to stop it

Great article. Thank you for the reminder to do multiple searches. While researching my extended Ouderkirk family (23 name variants found to date) I located where the name Swenor married into the family. Swenor records earlier than the 1900’s were impossible to find. At a family reunion I attended, I met a member of the Swenor family who told me about their great grandfather who emigrated from Canada with the police after him. At the border, he gave his name, Chinouard, and they wrote it down as Swenor. Of course, the French pronunciation of Chinouard sounds like Swenor to the English ear and great grandpa was not at all averse to getting a new spelling, LOL.

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