Romeo and Juliet may have thought a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but in our business, the question, “what’s in a name?” is much more complex. That’s because, when it comes to genealogy, names are a critical part of finding and confirming your ancestors. But major life events affect names, and in turn, they determine how easy or difficult it can be to find your ancestors.


Sleeping BabyGenerally speaking, children receive their father’s surname at birth. That said, children born illegitimately – or out of wedlock – are often given their mothers’ surname, and have for centuries. During the 1800s, it was common for parents of illegitimate children to marry eventually, at which point their children would take their father’s surname. Of course, that doesn’t mean there is a record of this change. For example, there might be a birth certificate on record for a “John Brown,” the illegitimate child of Susan Brown. When Susan married Benjamin Smith, John became “John Smith.” While his birth certificate may not reflect this change, his marriage certificate likely does. That said, in some cases, parish pastors christened children with the father’s name, even if they were illegitimate.

What does this mean for your search? If your ancestor was illegitimate (which you may not even know), it’s possible that some – or all – of his or her records are filed under the mother’s surname, not the father’s. As you research, it’s critical that you include the surname of the father (if available) in your search.


If you’re a woman who has been married, it’s likely you understand the headache associated with changing your last name. There are social security cards to update, driver’s licenses to change, passports to renew and financial institutions to notify. While the process may not have been quite so complex in earlier centuries, it still made public records a little more confusing. It’s easy to assume that a female ancestor took her husband’s name upon her marriage. That said, in many European countries, women continued to use their own surname – or maiden name – even after marrying. That means your ancestor’s records – even the death certificate – could be filed under her maiden name.

WeddingTo confuse matters further, records listed differently in different areas. Sometimes, birth records list the mother by her maiden name instead of her married name. Sometimes, the records don’t list the mother’s surname at all, instead listing her first name and corresponding relationship (for example: Mina, wife of Georg Albrecht).

So marriage affects the names of your ancestors. But think about this; women often marry more than one time during the course of
their lives. This was especially true during earlier centuries, when death rates among young people were much higher. This made many more young women and men widows and widowers, and made it more likely that they’d marry again – and they usually did so quickly. This means that your female ancestor’s records could be listed under her own surname, or the surname of any one of her spouses (assuming she was married more than once).  As you research, keep careful track of the names of any additional spouses for a female ancestor – even if that spouse was not your ancestor. It’s also important to keep in mind that the children of a remarried ancestor often kept the surname given to them at birth, rather than adopting the surname of a stepfather.

Names can certainly complicate the genealogy process, but they certainly don’t need to stand between you and your research. If you need help finding an ancestor and are unsure of the surname or surnames recorded, we can help. Contact us or give us a call today.