Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Research Tip : One-Name Surname Studies - Part 1

For the truly ambitious, one way to problem-solve some of the challenges in your family tree might be by conducting a "one-name surname study."  The concept is that in the process of collecting everything about a particular family name, you might eventually stumble over a connection to your own.  How is this done?  The steps might include:
  • Select a fairly unusual surname
Try not to select a name that will yield too many results thus making the project large and frustrating, thus avoiding names like Smith or Jones.  Proper care in selecting an appropriate name will create the potential for a fun and rewarding project.
  • Compile a list of spelling alternatives 
Every surname has alternative spellings, some intentional, some not.  Even Smith has alternatives:  Smyth, Smythe, Smithe, and Smit.  Also, if you are working with non-English origins, Smith might actually be Schmidt.  Become familiar with all of the alternatives and create a working list.
  • Determine if there is already an ongoing study for this name
Those that are conducting extensive one-name studies often register them on such sites as The Guild of One-Name Studies which currently has nearly 8,000 names already registered.  Each listing provides contact information for the registrant, name, e-mail, surname variations, website, and other notes such as active DNA studies.  If your research leads you to the United Kingdom, you might visit One Name Studies With UKBMD

Mail Lists have been created for some surname studies.  I have subscribed to the Dudgeon Surname List for years.  Be sure to check the Surname Resources at Rootsweb to see if there is a list for your family name, subscribe and read through the list archives.
  • Begin gathering everything you can find, online & off, that mentions the family name or any of its variations
Once you've determined that you're going to take the plunge to start a one-name study, begin the gathering process.  When I started my Dudgeon study years ago, I did this by consulting book & census indexes.  There was no web and no digital text recognition to speak of then.

Today, I would recommend starting the "harvest" with online sources first, using such tools as Google, Mocavo, Google Books,, Family Search, World Vital Records, American Ancestors and other online heavy hitters.  Then, when you've exhausted those sources, you will better know what books, manuscripts, periodicals, microfilm, and special collections that you will need to consult.  This is where those research checklists come in handy...
  • As names, dates & places start to match up, begin compiling family groups
In planning any large project, have a plan of organization from the get-go, and do yourself a large favor and spend time being meticulous with noting sources.  You'll hate yourself later if you are sloppy on that step.   Keep a log of where you've been, or you will find yourself going down the same paths over and over.

Whether you use a paper organization system, or a software program, devise a process and stick with it.  I would suggest using your favorite genealogical software program to input names, dates, facts & sources.  There's no law that says those individuals that you enter into a family tree program have to connect until you figure out how they fit together.  And, using this method will make it much easier to locate individuals by name, date or relationship and will nudge you to state your sources.
  • Consider starting a website or mail list with your findings thereby soliciting input from others researching the same name
Some bricks walls just can't be tumbled without the help of others like yourself who may hold rare pieces to the genealogical puzzle while you hold others.  Apart the pieces don't build much, but together you can build a family tree.

If you're uncomfortable with the responsibility and/or cost of sponsoring a website, considering starting a Mail List like those mentioned herein.  By all means, register your efforts with the Guild and advertise in genealogical magazines, periodicals, websites.  Consider starting your own free blog.

In some cases, those that have conducted one-name surname studies have determined that all roads lead back to one progenitor or family.  Sometimes the roads simply lead into the mist...  In either case, you will no doubt learn new things about your branch of the family and make contact with new cousins.

Next time we'll talk about a specific one-name study with connections to Southwest Michigan.

Nameless Picture of the Day
unknown couple
Photographer - Packard, Kalamazoo

Can you identify the young couple in this cabinet card?  Do you have knowledge of the photographer? Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.