gfhpurple.gif (18559 bytes)

Fall 2003
A Publication of the St. Louis Public Library

Vol. 3   No. 4


Help!! provides an opportunity for readers to ask for assistance with genealogical queries. We invite our readers to contribute solutions to questions featured in this section. See the Contact section for email and postal addresses. Put GFH-HELP!! in the subject line.

Q: What is my real surname?

A: What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but try convincing a genealogist of that. Many people ask this question, and the short answer is, your real name is what is printed on your birth certificate.

The long answer is also that your real name is on your birth certificate, but some explanation of names, their origin and use may help those who don’t like either the short or the long answer. Surnames, as we know and use them in the United States and most of Western Europe, were not used prior to the 11th century. In some parts of the world, surnames are still not created or used as we do in the United States. In the 11th and 12th centuries, it began to be important to distinguish among, say, all the Johns or Thomases in a large and continually growing medieval population.

This need to distinguish among several people in each town who had the same name led to the use of surnames. As the necessity for surnames grew, people chose the surname they preferred. These tend to fall into several broad categories. Patronymics are those that indicate parentage – for example, Johnson, Fitzhugh, or MacDonald. Names based on other relationships also exist. The next broad group is names based on topography or place of residence; in other words, the place where a person lived or some physical feature of that place. Examples include Ford or Rivers. A third broad category is occupational names – Baker, Taylor, or Smith, for instance. Names were also based on ethnicity, status, physical features or personal characteristics, seasons, or simply whim. A surname, then, served to distinguish John who owned the bakery on High Street from John who ran the mill from John who had red hair.

Many of us think of certain surnames in connection with a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group. This is often helpful in doing genealogy – you’re not likely to look for Johann Nielsen emigrating from Ireland, once you know that Nielsen is a Scandinavian name. Don’t make the mistake, though, of insisting that Johann Nielsen must be from Denmark. He could have been descended from a long line of Irish Nielsens – the ones whose Viking ancestor took a liking to a pretty Irish redhead. It is important to remember that any national, ethnic, racial, or religious characteristic associated with a name is a clue to its origin, not a definitive statement about your next-door neighbor who has that name – or where your great-grandfather emigrated.

Surnames were not consistently passed from father to children until the 14th century, and even after that it was a simple thing to change a surname – you just called yourself something else. But by the time Europeans began arriving in North America, the general rule was that you had a surname which was the same as your father’s, and his father’s before that. Spelling, however, is a different matter.

Many people are misled while doing their family history by the notion that the name must always be spelled the way it is spelled today, and that if it is not spelled that way, the ancestor in question must belong to someone else. However, standardized spelling is a recent phenomenon, especially when it comes to names. Here’s a secret. If you are looking for John Atwood in Connecticut in 1660, with a wife Anne and children Richard, Patience, and John, and what you find is John Attwoode with wife Anne and children Richard, Patience, and John, in the right place and at the right time, assume you have the right guy unless you find another John Atwood with wife Anne and children Richard, Patience, and John in exactly the same place at exactly the same time. In that case, I wish you luck.

There is no single correct way to spell any name, and no single name that is your "real" name. You are a product of all your many ancestors, equally descended from those whose name you bear and those whose names are lost to history.

Q: What is a delayed birth certificate, and what were they used for?

A: A delayed birth certificate is a birth certificate that was filed long after the birth actually took place. In the 1930s and 1940s, as it became more necessary to prove one’s identity, most states allowed the registration of births long after the fact. Some states were lenient about what was required as proof that the birth took place, while others were quite stringent. Evidence commonly used could include a baptismal certificate, Bible record, school record, application for an insurance policy, birth certificate of a child of the applicant, Social Security card application, affidavit from the attending physician or midwife, or from another knowledgeable person, such as the applicant’s parent or older relative. As you can see, some of these records would have been created long after the birth. Because of that, a delayed birth certificate is not nearly as reliable a source for genealogical information as a birth certificate created at the time of the birth.

Table of Contents