6 Ways to research your family name

The image above is of my grandfather (in the middle), though I have no idea when this was taken.

Research is a large part of the writing process, whatever genre you are writing.

When making a start on a memoir, you might have gaps in some of the knowledge about your family and want to find more. Or you may want to see if you have anyone famous among your ancestors.

Also, if you are writing an historical novel, you may want to know the ancestry behind your characters surname – it may be pertinent to their story.

For my next novel I have been researching two of my ancestors, as I’m using them as a starting point for my story. A Facebook group have been incredibly useful, as have ancestry searches by other family members, who have been happy to share the information with me.

Here are six ideas to help you search:

1. Ask relatives. If you have older relatives who you can ask, find as much as you can about your family name and ancestors.  You may have quite a surprise and find that your surname didn’t start out as it is today. Often, surnames were changed to fit into the political mores of the time or they may have been changed so people can pronounce them. There is nothing more interesting than hearing people talk about family – although, sadly many people don’t share this type of information.

2. Understand surname origins and naming conventions and traditions.

Learn about your surname. Often the meaning is interesting in itself. The origins of surnames can come from:

  • Occupations e.g. Fletcher – arrow maker; Wright – carpenter, craftsman or wagon maker
  • Physical characteristics e.g. Brown might be given to someone with brown hair
  • Places or landmarks e.g. Lee – field or meadow
  • Patronymics e.g. father’s name – Johnson – son of John

3. Study family trees and profiles with the same name. This is probably the most obvious way to find information, but can be costly and take time, because not everyone you find with your surname is going to be related to you. A good starting point though.

4. List surname variations and misspellings. In the past people were not as fastidious as we are about the spelling of our names.  Many people in the 1800s and earlier couldn’t read, write or spell. For that reason, phonetic spellings were common. Therefore, it is useful to search for variations of your ancestor’s surname when looking through lists a census.  There is also the problem that most ancient documents are handwritten, and certain letters look very similar and the other writing conventions of the time add an extra mystery when trying to read and work out spellings.

5. Join a society for your surname. The Surname Society is actually based in Wiltshire (where I live), which was a nice surprise for me). https://Surname-society.org

Alternatively, type your surname into the search engine and see what comes up – there will probably be several links.

6. If several generations of your family lived and worked in the same area, it is worth looking online, or searching on Facebook for pages for that town, or area – you may find information there that you didn’t know.

More websites that might help: