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Genealogists who seek to reconstruct the lives of each ancestor consider all historical information to be "genealogical" information. Traditionally, the basic information needed to ensure correct identification of each person are place names, occupations, family names, first names, and dates. However, modern genealogists greatly expand this list, recognizing the need to place this information in its historical context in order to properly evaluate genealogical evidence and distinguish between same-name individuals.
Family names are simultaneously one of the most important pieces of genealogical information, and a source of significant confusion for researchers.
In many cultures, the name of a person refers to the family to which he or she belongs. This is called the family name, surname, or last name. Patronymics are names that identify an individual based on the father''s name, e.g., Marga Olafsdottir or Olaf Thorsson. Many cultures used patronymics before surnames were adopted or came into use. The Dutch in New York, for example, used the patronymic system of names until 1687 when the advent of English rule mandated surname usage. In Iceland, patronymics are used by a majority of the population. In Denmark and Norway patronymics and farm names were generally in use through the 1800s and beyond, though surnames began to come into fashion toward the end of the nineteenth century in some parts of the country. Not until 1856 in Denmark and 1923 in Norway were there laws requiring surnames.
The transmission of names across generations, marriages and other relationships, and immigration may cause difficulty in genealogical research. For instance, women in many cultures have routinely used their spouse''s surnames. When a woman remarried, she may have changed her name and the names of her children; only her name; or changed no names. Her birth name (maiden name) may be reflected in her children''s middle names; her own middle name; or dropped entirely. Children may sometimes assume stepparent, foster parent, or adoptive parent names. Because official records may reflect many kinds of surname change, without explaining the underlying reason for the change, the correct identification of a person recorded identified with more than one name is challenging.
Surname data may be found in trade directories, census returns, birth, death, and marriage records.
Genealogical data regarding given names (first names) is subject to many of the same problems as are family names and place names. Additionally, the use of nicknames is very common. For example Beth, Lizzie or Betty are all common for Elizabeth, and Jack, John and Jonathan may be interchanged.
Middle names provide additional information. Middle names may be inherited, follow naming customs, or be treated as part of the family name. For instance, in some Latin cultures, both the mother''s family name and the father''s family name are used by the children.
Historically, naming traditions existed in some places and cultures. Even in areas that tended to use naming conventions, however, they were by no means universal. Families may have used them some of the time, among some of their children, or not at all. A pattern might also be broken to name a newborn after a recently deceased sibling, aunt or uncle.
An example of a naming tradition from England, Scotland and Ireland:
Another example is in some areas of Germany, where siblings were given the same first name, often of a favourite saint or local nobility, but different second names by which they were known (Rufname). If a child died, the next child of the same gender that was born may have been given the same name. It is not uncommon that a list of a particular couple''s children will show one or two names repeated.
Personal names have periods of popularity, so it is not uncommon to find many similarly-named people in a generation, and even similarly-named families; e.g., "William and Mary and their children David, Mary, and John".
Many names may be identified strongly with a particular gender; e.g., William for boys, and Mary for girls. Others may be ambiguous, e.g., Lee, or have only slightly variant spellings based on gender, e.g., Frances (usually female) and Francis (usually male).
The aim of this site is to encourage the research of genealogy, family history and family trees. Family history and genealogy encompasses the lives and ancestry of individuals and families.
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