Desperately Seeking Surnames
10/28/2009
Finding names is at the heart of genealogy. Try these seven surname research strategies, and you'll open doors to family tree discoveries.

 
I've often wondered what it would've been like to do genealogy in the days before surnames. It's hard to imagine so few people in any given town that a reference to a guy named “short Herbert” would be enough for people to know who I meant. I'm pretty certain genealogy would've been a sticky wicket-who knows how many diminutive guys named Herb lived in the same area? And how would you be able to tell whether “knobby-kneed Norman” or “rotund Robert” was his father?

Amazingly, surnames didn't come along until fairly recent times. In Britain, for example, they weren't common until the 12th to 14th century, and even then the practice wasn't universal. Many European Jews began using surnames only when it was mandated in the late 18th and 19th centuries. We genealogists, of course, are glad our families finally adopted these identifiers — they make sorting out the Herberts and Normans and Roberts much easier. But surnames' value to family historians doesn't stop there. You can open the door to even more genealogical finds by using these seven surname research strategies.

1. Find out what it means.