Sunday, January 1, 2012

Unusual Names: A Blessing or a Curse for Family History Researchers?

Having an ancestor with an unusual or unique first name can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because a unique first name makes it easier to follow your ancestor through the censuses, particularly if his or her last name is fairly common.  A curse because the odds of the name being misspelled increases the more unusual the name is. 

My great-grandfather’s first name was Ormel, like Hormel but without the “H.” His last name was Lawrence.  I didn’t know his or his wife’s name when I first started researching my maternal grandfather’s line. But I knew when my grandfather was born and where the family lived, so I searched the 1900 Census, which would be the first one he is listed in. Finding my grandfather, I also found his parents’ names (Ormel and Ellen) and approximate ages in the process.  I then followed Ormel back through the censuses, and found his parents’ names and approximate ages.

While I very much appreciated Ormel’s unique first name, I don’t think he felt the same.  Beginning with the 1905 Wis. State Census, he began going by his initials, O.H., rather than his name.  Even his obituary called him O.H.

Regarding the spelling errors I mentioned earlier, the first census Ormel is in (the 1880 Census) lists his name as Ormet, but I knew it was him because his parents’ and sister’s names were listed with his.’s Family Data Collection shows his name as Pimel Lawrence on his marriage record, but again, I knew it was him because his bride’s name was Ellen Branshaw, my great-grandmother. 

I have no idea where the name Ormel came from (it doesn’t appear to be a family name) or how to pronounce it correctly.  But it certainly makes him stand out from all the other Lawrences in Eau Claire County, Wis.

Tracking down ancestors requires a lot of patience and the ability to think outside the box.  Names are not always going to be spelled the same way. Birth years are bound to change from one census to another. Validating each individual record with other sources can help you determine if this is the same family member or even the right family.

Discover your roots and watch the branches of your family tree begin to grow.

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