Researching Ancestors with Patronymic Surnames (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Researching with Patronymics

In England surnames became standardized and hereditary by about 1450 and thus we don’t have any problems with written records, as we can just search for all the Robertsons, or Richardsons. The ancestors of many Canadians came from countries where patronymics survived to a much later date, even slightly into 20th century. This means that the surname changed each generation and causes much grief and gnashing of teeth for the modern family historian. In many languages these may become elliptical when the notion of son is left out and just the father’s name remains, resulting in a shortened version such as Roberts instead of Robertson.

A census in 1600 showed that 14 percent of men born in Amsterdam and who married, had surnames (Geertsma). Rural areas were slower to adopt than urban ones. In countries formerly using patronymics the compulsory use of surnames came about 1750 in Wales, 1811 in the Netherlands (at time of Napoleon’s influence), and about 1850-1910 in Scandinavia. The upper class had had surnames for hundreds of years, so laws for adoption of hereditary surnames were viewed positively by most people as it indicated a rise in social status. The type of patronymic prefixes or suffixes in your family, or their neighbours in North America, since people migrated in groups, can assist in identifying the country and region of origin.

Parish Register Technique for Patronymics

Unique problems occur prior to 1813 in Scandinavian and Welsh parishes and even in those areas where a group of residents from one of these countries clung to their old patronymic naming system, for example in English counties close to Wales, or in colonies of Scandinavians in North America. The surname changed each generation and typically there are very few surnames in use. It is thus useless to go from year X to year Y taking down all of the Morgans or Christensens.

In these areas the location of each family, for example the name of the farm, the father’s occupation, and the husband-wife pair take on a far greater importance. It is essential to record the address and occupation together with the full names for every relevant entry.

The most successful tactic for reading parish registers employing patronymics is to concentrate on one family unit at a time, having your pedigree chart at hand to guide you. Arrange to have all of the records for a designated time period on hand at the same time as you will be flipping back and forth between the hatches, matches and dispatches. You can’t do all the christenings for 200 years, and later on do all the marriages and burials.

Say you are starting with a date and place of birth for Evan Williams. First find this entry (he may be son of William Davies and Margaret Jones), then look for his parent’s marriage, then the births of his siblings. Don’t search for these siblings by examining their names as you don’t yet know their first names and there will be dozens of Williams’ children. Instead scan the column of parents’ names and look for a couple with the right names, occupation and residence. In patronymic areas wives kept their maiden names and these were usually given at their children’s christenings thus facilitating finding the correct couple. You are thus not just looking for William and Margaret Davies but for William Davies, carpenter, and his wife Margaret Jones of Cwm Farm. Then check the marriage of the couple, any burials for their children and after that, the burials for the couple. Now you have completed a family group record.

You can, of course work forwards to find subsequent marriages and families as well as burials, but more typically you will want to work backwards, so go back one generation by taking the birth date of a parent and finding that and repeating the process described above. This is far more successful than trying to look for all the names at once. You soon get stupefied by looking at a series of John Williams, David Williams, William Davies, David Davies, William Williams and so forth.

On some entries a particular man may have an extra, second surname which could be his occupation, a nickname or where he lives. These were added in order to differentiate between the many people sharing the same patronymic name in one parish. Watch for them and be aware that they are not always given. Other clues, such as address, occupation, name of spouse or parents, will assist you in confirming that you have the right person.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.