13 Strategies for Searching for Ancestral Names

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

William Shakespeare was no genealogist or else he wouldn’t have asked “What’s in a name?” Instead, the Bard would have spent his off-hours searching for the “spear-brandishing” ancestor who gave the family its name.

If Shakespeare had lived in our era of bits and bytes rather than quill pen and ink, he would have tried to find “what’s in a name” using the Internet. And, just like many contemporary genealogists who’ve found themselves caught in the Web, old Will would have probably come away frustrated. A search for the Shakespeare surname on FamilySearch’s British Isles International Genealogical Index <>, for example, returns 200 results without even getting past first names beginning with A. There’s got to be a better way, right?

There is, if you understand a little about surnames and a bit about your online alternatives.

Although surnames are the backbone of both digital and paper genealogy research, the irony is they haven’t been around all that long — only since the 11th or 12th century in Europe. Before that time, a name such as “Richard of Middlebury” was identification enough. But as the population grew, so did the need for surnames.

Surnames are generally derived from four sources: places (Hill, Brooks), occupations (Bishop, Miller), characteristics (Little, Smart) or patronymics — father’s name — (Johnson, O’Brien). Of the four, patronymics can present the trickiest research challenge, as different cultures employed different methods of naming. In Welsh patronymics, for instance, children took their surname from their father’s given name: James, the son of Terrence Gregory, would be called James Terrence, while James’ son Michael would be Michael James. In Denmark, the surname was derived from the father’s given name followed by sen for son, or datter for daughter. So Hans Nielsen’s daughter Johanne would be Johanne Hansdatter.

If wading through patronymics wasn’t enough, we also have to contend with more variations in spelling than thorns on a cactus. Thomas Jefferson thought nothing of adding a final e to explorer William Clark(e)’s name. In my own family, a South Carolina deed index carries on its rolls Faulkenberry, Fortenbery, Faulkenbury, Falkenberry and Falconbury. And you Smiths thought you had it tough.

Whatever challenge your surname brings — and we all have one — one thing’s for sure: We’re all proud of the name we bear. And so we want to find the family who carried it down through time. You’ve probably tried searching the popular Web sites for your surname, but as Grandma loved saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Here’s how we do it.


Did you know there are thousands of personal Web sites devoted to surname research and data compilation? I bet you have an ancestor on one of them.

Personal Web sites are the pages posted online by individuals or groups of individuals who are collecting GEDCOMs (the universal file format for family trees), photos or historical information about a specific surname or branch of a family. Sites may contain photos of the family homestead, an online database, a query board, favorite music or scrapbook. The Hume Family Home Page <>, for example, features pictures of Scottish castles near and dear to the Hume/Home family. There are also links to the Hume message board at RootsWeb-Ancestry <>, GenForum <> and the Tartans Bulletin Board <>. In addition, you’ll find a bibliography of books containing Hume references, as well as Webmaster Jim Hume’s database containing 46,991 individuals in 17,323 families, including 12,365 people with the Hume/Home surname.


If you have a Web site, you may have fun joining a WebRing — a loosely knit confederation of sites that contain similar content. There are WebRings for just about every interest, including cats, science fiction, antique lamps and genealogy, even for surnames.

The idea behind WebRings is that they make it easy for Web surfers to find similar sites by clicking from one member in a WebRing to another. The “ring” concept refers to the fact that if you visit every member site, you’ll end up back where you started.

The big player in offering WebRings is, appropriately enough, WebRing! <>. You can join one of its existing rings (there are more than 300 dedicated to surnames) or create your own. Joining or creating a WebRing is free and easy to set up.

To create a WebRing, you need to sign up for an ID (it’s free). Next, name your ring and describe it (“The Macbeth Family WebRing, dedicated to sites researching the history and genealogy of the Macbeth Family”). You’ll be asked to categorize your ring, which in this case would be under Family/Genealogy/Lineages and Surnames. After adding the address (URL) of your site, your ring will be activated. To remain active, the ring must contain at least three Web sites.

At this point, you can send an invitation to Webmasters of other related sites to join your ring. You’ll also be given the code to place on your Web site. The code produces a box that identifies your site as belonging to the ring, and contains navigation arrows to visit other sites in the ring.

As RingMaster you can edit the ring’s logo, change the color scheme, e-mail everyone in your ring, and view ring statistics. Creating your own WebRing can help you develop a surname-specific virtual community.

You can find other genealogy WebRings at <>.

The Wickware-Wickwire Family Page <> contains a unique online “museum” — a collection of photos of family history and memorabilia. The Webmaster of Kassell Connections <> has uploaded information about the Cassell/Kassell families of the St. Louis and Chicago areas from the mid-1800s to the present. Their pages include family census, cemetery and city directory listings, as well as links to other Kassell researchers.

Not named Hume, Wickwire or Kassell? Don’t worry: Somewhere out there you’ll probably find a page full of goodies about your surname. Here are some ways to start looking:

Search engines: The quickest way to locate surname sites is to use one of the major nongenealogy search engines such as Google <> or AltaVista <>. Yes, you’ll get thousands of hits if you have a common surname (Smith genealogy turns up 282,000), but the top half-dozen or so will probably be relevant. I did a quick run-through on Google for Faulkenberry genealogy and got a manageable 501 results. Wouldn’t you know it, one of them actually had land records relating to my third-great-grandfather.

Cyndi’s List: From Cyndi Howells’ invaluable home page <>, scroll down to the Personal Home Pages category. Then click on the letter of the alphabet for your surname. If you don’t find any pages with your name, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Unfortunately, Cyndi’s Personal Home Pages are listed alphabetically by the name of the Web page, not necessarily the surname. So if someone named a Web page “Genealogy of the Rutherford Family,” that site will be listed with the G pages, not the Rs.

You can work around this problem by going to the top of Cyndi’s main page, clicking Search Cyndi’s List, and entering your surname. This technique will also help you pick up surnames that are listed as allied families but are not the main surname on a Web site. For example, the “Law, Bruce, French, Parks, Rogers and Hollister” lines are listed under a Taggart page. But Cyndi’s on-site search engine will find them.

Genealogy Resources on the Internet: You can search for surnames on this site <> either alphabetically or using the on-site search engine. If you opt for the search engine, it will return any occurrence of the surname, including personal Web sites and surname-specific mailing lists.

FamilySearch’s Search Family History Web Sites: Although you’ve probably used the FamilySearch site <> to explore the Ancestral File or International Genealogical Index (IGI), the site also has links to thousands of personal Web pages. From the main page, click Search, then Search Family History Web Sites. You can narrow your search by Place, Category and Web Site Language, or you can search just sites in the Surname or Surname Association category.

Gengateway: This is a portal site <> to thousands of surname-related Web sites. It contains more than 200,000 listings and 90,000 different surnames. In all, the number of surnames found within entries on the site totals more than 500,000. After entering your surname in the search box, a results page is generated with links to personal Web pages, surname bulletin boards and researchers. The Gengateway site also contains its own searchable query forum. The folks best known for selling Family Tree Maker software also host a virtual online community for users’ personal Web pages. The pages are searchable by surname or keyword. Enter your search terms at <> and the system will pull out all of the family home pages with that name. Don’t panic if the search results number in the thousands: A search of Hume returned 4,302 matching documents, but on close examination, several of the hits were generated from the same Web site.


Ask and ye shall receive. At least that’s the theory. You tell the genealogy community what surname you’re looking for and the community pitches in to help. Does it sound too good to be true? It isn’t. Within 24 hours of posting a query about my Snow family, I received more than 300 pages of text from another researcher.

Success from queries does require diligence, however. That means you need to post and read queries. In addition, it’s critical that you return to query sites every month or so to read new posts. Think how frustrating it would be to know that the message you’d waited years to find had been posted the day after you were there — but you’d never returned. Gives you chills, doesn’t it?

Where do you find and post queries? Here are some places to start:

CousinConnect <>: This newcomer to the world of query sites has lots to offer. Steve Johnson, Webmaster of <>, created the site so researchers could search and post “pure” queries. When you enter a surname in the search box, the system searches only the surname field of posted queries, not the body text. That means you won’t get irrelevant hits from junk messages and off-topic threads, or queries that use your surname as a word (“My g-g-grandfather was a farmer…” when you’re looking for Farmer).

A unique feature of CousinConnect is the control it gives visitors over managing their queries. Once you go to the site and post your query, you can go back at any time to change or delete it. This feature is particularly useful if your e-mail address has changed, or if you want to correct a name or date in your original post.

USGenWeb <>: Digging up American roots? Then head for the USGenWeb and post queries like crazy.

This site contains Web pages for each US state and county. Each county has its own query pages. Some counties post queries via a bulletin board system, others through an e-mail you send to the county coordinator. You’ll get the most bang for your buck if you post queries in each of the counties where your ancestors lived.

Because county pages are set up by individual volunteer coordinators, the sites vary in content and organization. If you want to read old queries, some sites archive them by year, so you’ll have to search year by year. Other sites have made your search easier by adding an on-site search engine.

GenForum <>: You’re sure to find your surname on one of the 50,500 forums at this site. And, with more than 9.4 million postings, your chances of locating someone else researching your family are excellent.

A time-saving feature is the Reply Notification service, which automatically generates an e-mail to you when someone responds to your post. To learn more about this feature, click Help and scroll down to the Frequently Asked Questions section. (You need to register to use this feature or to post queries.) And don’t worry about searching through separate message archives — every message ever posted on a GenForum board is still there.

Ancestry-RootsWeb <>: When Ancestry acquired the volunteer Roots Web site, one of the first projects was to replace Ancestry’s and Roots Web’s GenConnect bulletin boards. With the changeover complete, the combined collection now boasts more than 100,000 boards (forums). The boards are easy to navigate, and include features such as automatic e-mail notification. You can even set up a My Favorites section that links to all of your surname boards. Now, whenever you return to the site, you can quickly jump to your surname favorites. (See the April 2002 Family Tree Magazine for a full review.)


If you want to learn as much as possible about your surname, you may want to consider starting or joining a one-name study. One-name studies research all occurrences of a surname, as opposed to researching any one branch.

Some one-name studies concentrate on a specific geographic area; others research a surname worldwide. As you can imagine, getting involved in a one-name study is quite a commitment. For example, British genealogist David Hawgood has extracted lists of all Hawgood births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales from 1837 to 1900.

Organizations such as the Guild of One-Name Studies <>, based in the United Kingdom, serve as a kind of clearinghouse for one-name study researchers. Currently, the guild has registered more than 7,000 surnames.

Common resources for one-name studies are census indexes, indexes to the Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths (UK) and the International Genealogical Index (IGI).

For more information on one-name studies, also see FamilyNet and UK One-Name Studies <>.


Several subscription sites and a few free ones have millions of names stored in online pedigree databases. Because of the pedigree links, if you find one name it’s likely you’ll find a passel. (Remember, though, that nobody verifies these family trees, so use them as starting points for your own research — not substitutes for research.) If your database search comes up empty, remember to go back and try variant spellings — you never know how your surname was spelled. Some sites are better than others at automatically including variant spellings.

FamilySearch <>: At press time, the FamilySearch databases contained 909 million names. If your ancestor isn’t one of them, I’ll eat my GEDCOM.

The FamilySearch site has been a winner with online genealogists since its May 1999 launch. Since then, the site has received more than 8 billion hits, thanks to its data-rich Ancestral File, International Genealogical Index and Pedigree Resource File. You may find birth, marriage and death dates, and, if you’re lucky, multiple generations of your family tree.

To use the site, click on Search for Ancestors, then enter at least a surname. The search engine will plow through all of the databases and Web sites, looking for any occurrence of your name. (For tips on searching Family-Search, see the December 2001 Family Tree Magazine.)

WorldConnect <>: WorldConnect’s mission is simple — it wants to connect the family trees of everyone in the world! And at last count, the site is well on its way. WorldConnect’s searchable database contains 206 million names in 200,000 GEDCOM files.

Search WorldConnect by entering your surname. If you get too many hits, use the advanced search box located at the bottom of the results page to filter results. Filter selections include dates, places, parents and spouse. Once you find your ancestor, you can download the family tree if the person who submitted the file has offered that option. The number of generations you can download at once varies depending on the size of the file; the maximum is 10. The database can also be searched from Ancestry, where it’s called Ancestry World Tree.

Ellis Island <>: This database contains the passenger arrival records of approximately 22 million individuals whose names appear in original ships’ passenger lists for the Port of New York from 1892 to 1924. If your immigrant ancestor arrived in New York during that time period, his or her name is probably in the Ellis Island database. You’ll also find photographs of immigrants’ ships and scans of actual passenger manifests.

To locate your ancestor, enter the name into the search box. If the name produces hundreds of results, you can narrow the search by defining filters such as year of arrival, age at arrival, ethnicity, name of the ship and port of departure.

Once you start combing the Web for surnames, there’s no telling what you’ll discover about what’s in a name. If the Capulets and Montagues, whose young lovers versified that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” had been able to do a little Web searching, for instance, they probably would have found out that their feuding families were actually related. And that might have spared them no end of trouble.


More online surname resources:

Distant Cousin


500 Most Common Surnames in England


Lineages and Surnames


Surname Origins


Surname Web <>
From the October 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine