Sunday, March 28, 2010

Surnames: A Primer

Last week while teaching a Sunday school class, we were dealing with the names of the principle characters in the book of Ruth. I discussed the meanings of the names and that they were often associated with a simple meaning. These Hebrew words could be translated into one or several English words. Early names were unique to an individual; however, as the population grew, later parents often adopted the older names for their children. Eventually these names became commonplace.

A lady in the class asked a question (and a very good one I might add), “when did last names develop?” With the idea that further designations were necessary to distinguish one person from another with the same first name. After all, we all can’t be an Elvis, Madonna, Bono, Cher, Sting, or Lindsey. Lindsey? Oh, yeah Lindsey Lohan is not one of the mononymous few, even though she thinks she is. Strike her from the list.

Actually the beginning of surnames began during Bible times and precisely during the intertestamental period, as the Apocryphal books testify of one of the period’s heroes listed by the name of Simon Macabees. By New Testament times, simple surnames were in common usage and they followed the same conventions as many later European surnames. To illustrate my point, I used the name Simon which is used frequently in the New Testament and is the Greek form of the Hebrew/Old Testament name of Simeon.

Naming Conventions

The conventions one finds in the New Testament were used later in Europe for proto-surnames. While I will use some illustrations from various countries and languages, most will center on English names and naming conventions.

Patronymic Surnames: In the New Testament, Simon Barjona or Simon son of John is an example of a patronymic cognate. Depending on the language or country, prefixes and suffixes are used. In Scotland and Ireland, the prefixes of Mc and Mac are used for son as in McDonald and MacDonald. In Ireland, O’ is used for grandson, as in O’Kelly.

The Norman-Irish prefix for son is Fitz as used in Fitzhugh. In Wales, the prefix "ap" was used for "son of," as in "ap Jones" for son of Jones/John.  While "ap" is used occasionally today, it is more often found as a contraction into a unique patronymical surname.  Sometimes the "p"  was replaced with a "b."  For example, "ap Richard" was contracted to Prichard while "ap Owen" became Bowen. 

As for suffixes, -son is common in both England and Sweden as in Johnson and Nilsson respectively. In Denmark and Norway, the -søn and -sen are used as in Johannsøn and Jensen. In Greece, son of is rendered –opoulos as in Stephanopoulos. Slavic patronymic names often have variations on the suffix “ivich” as in Milosovich. Other Slavic variations are based on country (or language) of origin and the spelling of the root name.

Vocational Surnames: The New Testament provides a couple examples of names based on occupation and include Simon the Tanner and Simon the Sorcerer. Modern names derived from occupations include Smith, Cooper, Chandler, Shumaker, Fisher, Farmer and many others.

Locational Surnames: Simon of Cyrene and Simon the Canaanite are locational cognates for men with the same name. Although not specifically called as such, the father of Judas Iscariot was named Simon – therefore he could have been called Simon Iscariot or “of Kerioth.”

In English, names ending in –ton, -by, -ham, -wick, -caster or -chester, and –shire indicate a specific place as in Norton, Selby, Warwick, Durham, Manchester, and Ayleshire. Other European languages utilize “Von,” “Van” and “de” to indicate that the family was from some location as in the names von Richthofen, van Gogh, and de Haviland. The prefixes “de” and “von” were often used for families of noble origin while the Dutch “van” is not.

Other names are generic as in a non-specific geographic place such as Brooks – for someone living near a brook. The name Hill may have developed for a family living in a mountainous region and the names Forest and Woods for families who lived in a wooded area. Someone living near a lake may have been called John at the water – which evolved into the name Atwater.

Physical Characteristics: Some surnames have developed due to a person’s physical characteristics. In the New Testament, Simeon called Niger (or black) and Simon the Leper are examples from our lists of Simons. English surnames that developed from physical characteristics include Long, Short, Littlejohn, and Cruikshanks to name a few.

Nicknames: Because of the predominance of certain names, nicknames were often applied to distinguish individuals of the same name. The New Testament examples include Simon Peter (same as Simon Barjona).  The name Peter (meaning stone) was a nickname given by Jesus to his disciple. Others include Simon the Pharisee and Simon Zealots (same as Simon the Canaanite) indicate their religious and political leanings.

English names, like Elder and Younger, were ascribed to distinguish two Williams who lived in a village – William the Elder and William the Younger. Merriman is an extension of merry man and it may have been originally used for someone of a pleasing disposition.

Ornamental Surnames: It is not known if Simeon called Niger (or Black) was based on his appearance or it was an ornamental name. Often surnames such as Rose, White, Black, Green, and Brown are ornamental names. In parts of Europe, Jews were required to take names based on the primary language of their country.

Often those who could afford to purchase names chose to take names associated with nature such as Rosenbaum (red tree), Goldblum (gold flower), Kornfeld (corn field) and etc. Those unfortunate enough not to able to afford purchasing a pleasant surname were often saddled with ugly and derogatory names chosen by local registrars. 

Prior to the early 19th century, Sweden had a patronymic system that changed surnames with each generation. For example, Nils Larson’s son would have been named Johann Nilsson. Johann Nilsson’s son may have been Erik Johannson, while Erik’s son could have been named Bjorn Erikson. Sound confusing? It was for the Swedish government and it began requiring names to be either set with the current generation’s surname or for families to create new names. Both practices were utilized.

While this discourse doesn't cover every type of surname, it does explain how certain types of surnames developed over time.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 4 - Matthew Broderick

Last night’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” has been my favorite so far as it somewhat mirrors my quest into a side of family I never knew. Like Matthew Broderick, I knew very little of my father’s family and was born after the death of my grandparents; therefore, I have greatly concentrated my search on my father’s family.

At least three times in this show, Matthew Broderick indicates his astonishment of what he has discovered by saying, “I’m gobsmacked.” I had never heard this term of Irish origin, but it is fitting with all that he had discovered.

Matthew’s quest concentrates on two individuals – his grandfather, a World War I soldier and his great-great grandfather who served in the Civil War. I’ll allow you to watch the episode on Hulu (the link is below) without providing the details, as the element of surprise of the twists and turns in his genealogical pursuits are what makes this and the other “Who Do You Think You Are?” episodes so enjoyable.

World War One Research

Unlike Broderick, I haven’t had the opportunity to search for a World War I ancestor, as I have none in my direct ancestry. During World War I, only single men without dependents were drafted. Married men or single men with dependents could enlist; however, they were not compelled by the draft. Since both of my grandfathers were married with dependents, neither was required to serve; however, this is not a dead end for information about this and other young men at the time of this conflict.

Compulsory WWI Draft Registration

All men of an eligible age were required to register for the draft. These registration records are invaluable as they provide middle names, dates and location of birth, residence, occupation, dependent information, and descriptive info. has these records on file, but they are also available via microfilm from the National Archives. As with any record, they are based on the knowledge of the individual at time.

My step-father's father's draft registration (front)

The obverse of the record has my step-father’s father’s information. It lists his middle name, which I had already known from my step-father. His address is consistent with the family home; however, the town is listed as Versailles Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. This entity no longer exists as the township was incorporated as a borough and renamed “White Oak” in 1948. His birth date (January 6, 1882) and citizenship information lists him as native born.

This was what my step-father and apparently his own father also believed concerning his nativity. I remember my step-father telling me that his grandparents came to the US with two of their sons and the youngest, his dad, was born here. Unfortunately, this is incorrect. Newly released Swedish emigration records indicate that Axel was actually born in Sweden and left that country on July 14, 1882 with his mother and two brothers – six months after his birth.

His occupation, a skelp-builder, was with the National Tube Company in McKeesport, PA where he bent strips of metal into pipe which would be welded by another worker. Finally, his second wife’s full-name of Susan Elizabeth Akerberg is used here. She is often only listed by her middle name, Elizabeth (or her nickname of “Lib”), the name by which she was known.
My step-father's father's draft registration (back)

The reverse contains descriptive information regarding Axel Peter Akerberg. He was tall, of slender build, had dark hair, and brown eyes. It also indicated that the registration took place late in the process being September 12, 1918 (World War I ended on November 11, 1918). The registration also occurred at Wilmerding, PA. This I found interesting that a smaller town, Wilmerding that was further from his home than the larger town of McKeesport, was the registration place.

Civil War Research

On “Who Do You Think You Are?,” Matthew Broderick also traced a Civil War ancestor, Robert Martindale. Since I have done a great deal of research in this area, I did a search and discovered that Broderick’s great-great grandmother was awarded a widow’s pension for which she applied within a month following her husband’s death. The pension record may reveal additional information concerning his death in Georgia.

One of the things that was not defined very well in this episode is the role of a “skirmisher” that Robert Martindale played. The definition given by the historian was that skirmishers acted as guards. While that is not incorrect, it doesn’t tell the entire story as “skirmishers” were often sent out in advance of the main body of troops and engaged the enemy earlier than the regiment as a whole. Often these men, in their advanced position, were in danger of drawing enemy fire before the main engagement of battle. This allowed the regiment to know the location of the enemy often at the sacrifice of some of the skirmishers.

Despite this, the show was an emotional experience and the discovery of Robert Martindale’s fate also solved a mystery for a Civil War historian and the Veteran’s Administration. This was a great episode and shows how many of us, unbeknown to our current knowledge of our families, may not be aware of these ancestors' service. Before I began my research, our family was only aware of one Civil War ancestor; however, I now know of four: two from my mother’s side and two from my father’s side.

Civil War pensions were granted in the name of all four of these ancestors and these records have greatly added to my knowledge of not only their war time activities, but also their post-war lives and their families. For more info on Civil War pensions, see my series of articles on this subject. In the future, I will address compiled military service records as one of my posts.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 3 - Lisa Kudrow

I am now caught up with my viewing of the NBC/ miniseries, “Who Do You Think You Are?” with last week’s episode featuring Lisa Kudrow. If you have not seen this episode, you can watch it on Hulu. I have it posted below.

Lisa Kudrow set off for Belarus and Poland to find out about her great-grandmother’s fate during the Holocaust and to meet her father’s first cousin of whom he had only met once in the 1940s. Like others in the series thus far, there is an emotional connection to what was experienced in the past as it collides with the present.

One of the first principle rules of genealogical research is to talk to those who were alive at the time certain events occurred so as to have a firsthand account. Lisa not only talked to this long lost relative but an elderly woman who was her grandmother’s childhood friend back in her home village.

While I have never had this sort of encounter, I have had the chance to connect with long lost relatives. Most of this occurred in 1978 and one particular encounter allowed me to connect with my father’s two oldest first cousins on his father’s side. These two octogenarian sisters, Essie and Viola, remembered my grandfather, their uncle, well. He had lived in their home for a while prior to his marriage to my grandmother and both just loved their Uncle George dearly.

My meeting was quite enjoyable and I learned a great deal from these sisters including deep dark secrets of the family that told of illegitimacy and a family row over an inheritance that divided two groups of relatives 60 years previous. One sister remembered my father visiting her in a like manner in 1960 when he searched out his relatives in Ohio. Without their personal knowledge of events, names, and places, this information would have been lost over the decades.

Although Lisa Kudrow’s encounter was more emotional, my meeting of these long lost family members was just as important to me. I had been looking to make a connection to my grandfather and his ancestors and this was a great starting point. Flashing forward to 1991, I had the opportunity to meet Essie’s granddaughter who lives about an hour from me and this helped me continue the connection into another generation.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 2 - Emmitt Smith

Tonight, I watched another interesting episode of the NBC/ mini-series: “Who Do You Think You Are?” Being that I did not get to watch it when it aired two weeks ago, I watched it on Hulu. The video is posted below.

Former Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith traces his heritage from Texas to Florida to Alabama to Virginia to the slave coast of West Africa. I can’t imagine what it would be like to trace ancestors who had once lived in the bondage of slavery, and as the episode continued, Emmitt became emotional at times as he learned intricate details of his ancestry.

This episode taught some important lessons about tracing one’s family - often, you have to go to the place where your ancestors lived to extract the information from local records about your family. The Internet has become a wonderful tool to learn about your family; however, it will not totally replace traditional genealogical research. While sites like Ancestry, Footnote, and provide a great deal of information, not everything thing is online nor will it ever be. Emmitt was, however, able to use the tools provided by for finding information in the census records that aided his search of local records.

Like Emmitt’s journey from his home in Dallas to his ancestral locations, some mysteries can only be solved by traveling to the local county courthouse or public library. Unfortunately, records of a genealogical and/or historical nature are not standardized from state to state and locality to locality. It can be a hit or miss proposition to travel to one location and not find much. The turning point in my research was to find a will in Newark, NJ that listed a living relative that had quite a bit information on the ancestor I was trying to trace. The drive to Essex County, New Jersey was invaluable as it opened up doors that appeared permanently shut otherwise.

Eventually, we all hit brick walls and that is where Emmitt turned to DNA research. I have several posts on DNA that are worth checking out. One type of DNA test in which Emmitt has participated and I have not is the Autosomal DNA test. This test measures the 22 non-gender related chromosomes and estimates percentages of nationalities based on the markers that are found in each.

The test is not 100% conclusive of all of your ancestry, as certain markers of your ancestry may not always be passed down to you. For example, we have approximately 25% of the same DNA as each of our grandparents. If your grandfather had a marker in his DNA indicating a 10% Native American ancestry and none of the Native American markers are present in the 25% DNA passed on to you, you will not have any indication that you have this heritage in your bloodline by the test alone.

No doubt from the results, Emmitt’s Y-DNA and mtDNA were also tested as his origins were narrowed to a specific geographic region of Africa. With these two tests and because of the frequencies of genetic mutation, it is possible to get an estimated place of origin. While Emmitt’s was a specific region in Africa, my Y-DNA takes my paternal line back to Scandinavia and my maternal line to the Pyrenees Mountain region. Neither is very specific, but enough to satisfy my interests at the present.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 1 - Sarah Jessica Parker

In a house where others control the television, I had not the opportunity to watch the NBC miniseries that was produced by - "Who Do You Think You Are?" Yesterday, I found out that the series is available on Hulu and was able to watch the first episode dealing with Sarah Jessica Parker’s quest.

In order not to disclose what was specifically discovered, I will state that before researching her family, Sarah Jessica Parker thought she knew her ancestry. She had specific knowledge that her father’s family were Ashkenazic Jews that settled in New York City. Her mother’s family, as she thought, consisted of German immigrants to Cincinnati. Largely true, she was able to discover one line of English descent that could be traced back to colonial New England. That is all I am going to divulge and will allow you to watch the show. I have posted the video here.

The name of the show indicates the reasoning of why some of us get hooked on seeking out our genealogical past. My particular reasoning was based on not knowing my father’s family. I was nearly seven when my father’s passed away, and unlike my older brothers, I was born after the death of his mother - so I never knew her. I had no sense of connection to him nor did I have any direct knowledge of his ancestry. Growing up, I never met anyone that was born with my last name until I was 22 and that was only because I began a journey into my past. It has been quite an endeavor for me.

Sarah Jessica Parker learned of certain specific events concerning her ancestors – and very interesting history at that. In my journey, I have learned specific information concerning my ancestors that make their story even more interesting. While I have concluded the ancestral potion of my quest into my father’s direct paternal line, there is more specific knowledge about individuals that I am learning even yet today.

The most colorful character in my ancestry was my third great-grandfather who was Royal Navy Warrant Officer. He served in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. He was decorated for his service with the Naval General Service Medal with a clasp for San Sebastian, Spain.

He also had the pleasure, with other ward room officers aboard the HMS Superb, to be presented to Napoleon when he surrendered to the fleet in 1815. Granted land in Canada, William Owston came to North America in 1820. There are so many interesting things about this ancestor that it would take much more space to elaborate on his life.

When I began my quest in 1968 as part of an eighth grade assignment, I could only take my paternal lineage to my grandfather. Now, I can take my father’s line back to my tenth great-grandfather – where the records stop. Beyond that, Y-DNA testing indicates that this paternal line is of Scandinavian origin, which corresponds with the Viking settlements of Northern England and the Norse influenced spelling of my last name.

If you haven’t started your genealogical journey, you may want to do so soon. Good luck in your search for who you actually are.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Determining If Your Ancestor Had A Civil War Pension

As stated in a previous post, not every Civil War veteran received a pension. So, how do you determine if a pension application was filed by or in the name of your ancestor? As the number of pensions grew, the U.S. Pension Office began creating a series of file cards to search for pensions. There were three card indices that the Pension Office maintained: the Numerical Index, the General (alphabetical) Index, and the Organizational Index. All three series of cards have been microfilmed at the National Archives in Washington on 16mm microfilm.

Numerical Index

For all practical purposes, the numerical file is only useful when you are verifying the correctness of a file number. Trying to find a pension record by file number is like finding the needle in the proverbial haystack. If you are interested, the microfilm publication for the numerical file is A1158 and there are 359 rolls of film. These films can neither be rented nor purchased and may only be viewed at the National Archives.

The General Index (Alphabetical Index)

Most people will turn to the alphabetical index and search for their ancestor’s name. All John Smiths are listed before all John A. Smiths, John B. Smiths, and etc. These are itemized under the film series T288 and consist of 544 rolls.

Officially called the General Index, these alphabetical listings include pensions for service in the Civil War, post Civil War Indian Wars, Spanish American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Boxer Rebellion. So even if a relative received a pension for service in a later conflict, it will be also found in the General Index. Typically, there will be one card for soldier; however, I have seen two instances where there were two unique pension file cards for an individual.

This can happen when a soldier’s file was rejected and a later widow’s pension was granted without the two files being consolidated. One of the situations was a soldier discharged for wounds incurred in service in one unit. He filed an application for a war time pension that was ultimately rejected. At a later date, the pensioner reenlisted in another unit.

When widows were allowed to file under the Act of 1890, his wife filed a claim based on his service in the second unit – there is no mention of his previous service in the claim. This gives the appearance that the widow was not aware of his original service. These two files treated this man’s service as occurring by two different individuals. The situations where two or more cards exist for one person are rare.

Peter Blockinger's Two Files

The General Index cards will generally include the following: 

  • The soldier’s and all applicant’s names and the name of the guardian in the event of a dependent child claim.
  • An alias, if the soldier had one.
  • Index numbers for all applications and granted pension certificates
  • The soldier’s or marine’s unit(s) or sailor’s vessel
  • Date of original application filing(s)
  • Some cards, but very few, have rank information

The complete General Index or alphabetical file is searchable through’s web site. If you know a pension file exists, but cannot be found on Ancestry, it may suffer from the same issues as all transcribed records entered into an electronic database. These problems can be related to the original record or with the database entry. The name on the original record may be spelled as the soldier or family member spelled it at the time of the application and not later in time (or for that matter earlier). For example, the name may be listed as “Schoeller” when the family may have changed it be more phonetically accurate in English as “Shaler.”

Transcription errors are also a possibility. The individual entering the names into the electronic database may not be able to correctly identify a particular letter (i.e., an “e” mistaken for an “I” or an “a” being mistaken for an “o”). For years I thought a soldier’s name was Phillip Laupers as his card and pension file seemed to indicate this. It was not until I saw his name listed in a book as Laupus did I realize my mistake.

The Organizational Index

If you are looking at doing a comprehensive look at a unit, these microfilms document pensions that based upon the unit(s) or ship to which the individual was officially attached. A soldier will have as many cards as units as he has served.  Each card will list all of his organizations that were documented by the pension applicant.

Henry K. Smith's card documenting his five units in the Civil War

If the applicant did not indicate additional service on the pension application, cards will not be on file for these unidentified units.

Frederick Seclor did not enumerate his service in three Civil War units

Typically the organizational cards will have the following: 

  • The soldier’s name and aliases (dependents' names are not listed)
  • Units/Ships (the card for a specific unit will be listed as the primary unit)
  • Index numbers for all applications and granted pension certificates
  • Date of original application filing(s)
  • Rank information may be listed
  • Enlistment and discharge information may be listed
  • Date and location of death may be listed
  • The date of refiling for additional benefits based on age and/or service. provides a searchable index for the Organizational cards. The searching of both Ancestry’s General Index and Fold 3’s Organizational Index will help in trying to determine file numbers on the cards.

Accessing Your Ancestor’s Pension Record

Depending on where you live and how many pension files you want to view, a trip to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC may be in order. If you are searching for a multiplicity of records (such as researching a unit), a trip to NARA will be much more cost effective than ordering the files. Figure in transportation, lodging, meals, parking, and incidentals for your trip. I will detail what you can expect at NARA in a future post.

If you only desire a few pension files, you can order these direct from NARA. They offer two plans: the pension documents packet for $25.00 and the complete pension file (up to 100 pages) for $75.00. If you order the complete pension file and it is in excess of 100 pages, NARA will send you the first 100 pages and an invoice for the remaining pages. It is up to you to order the remainder of the file if you desire. From my experience, the larger files generally date from 1890 to 1900. Of the 500 pensions I’ve perused, only a small percentage of these files would have been over 100 pages.

While the complete pension – is as it sounds – complete, the pension document packet includes the following (which are also part of the complete file): a declaration of pension, a declaration of widow's pension (if there is one), statement of service, questionnaires; “Pension Dropped” cards; and marriage, death, and discharge certificates. For many genealogists, the pension documents packet will provide a sufficient number of documents that will provide genealogical data.

The complete file will include additional documentation including testimony from the soldier, physicians, neighbors, fellow veterans, and family members. In one pension file that I viewed, the testimony from the soldier, his estranged wife, and his oldest son documented family troubles that existed for over twenty years. The file was quite interesting as it painted a very descriptive picture of this dysfunctional family. Other complete pensions will have photos, war time letters, certificates, and a host of other documentation.

These can be ordered via mail or online from Credit card orders will receive priority attention. You should expect a turnaround time of four to eight weeks depending upon the demand at the time.

File Numbers

When ordering the files in person or online, you will be required to provide as much detail from the index cards including all of the veteran's units and all of the card's file numbers. These include the application and certificate numbers. Rejected pension applications will have only an application number. NARA desires all file numbers, although the pension file will be cataloged under the most recent certificate number. If no certificate number exists for the file, the pension will be stored under the most recent application number.

It is important that you list all numbers on the card. In the event of seven digit file numbers, you must check for newer file numbers listed on the bottom of the General Index cards (these are not found on the Organizational Index cards). Typically, the numbers start with C, XC, or IC. This was a new cataloging of active files in the early twentieth century to distinguish active pensions from those that were retired due to the pensioner’s death.

Rush M. Shaner's General Index card with newer index number

These numbers must be present on your request for the file. If not present when presenting your request slip at NARA, your desired file will not be returned and you will receive notification that the file cannot be found. For paying customers at a distance, the lack of the newer numbers will delay your processing as it will require the staff to research your documents.

Files not Found

In addition to NARA not being able to find files without the C, XC, or IC numbers, there are other situations where a file appears to be missing. This may occur because your numbers for the pension were incorrect and those file numbers related to another soldier. This can happen from our own sloppy transcription of the cards or not being able to discern the hand written numbers. The number seven may appear on the cards as being #1.

The file may have been misfiled and the clerk couldn’t find it. The file may have been removed for another patron or for microfilming and it is temporarily unavailable. Some of these complete pension files have been microfilmed and some are completely digitized and are available online at These files are removed from circulation during these times.

There is an additional reason the files may have been removed. This usually only refers to active pension files dating from the 1930s and onward. Because the jurisdiction of the pension office was transferred to the Veterans Administration, several pension files were removed from the National Archives and now are in the custody of the Veteran’s Administration. To get access to these records, a request must be made to the Veteran’s Administration.

Lastly, I have chalked up a final reason for a file not being found – laziness or a lack of attention to detail by some NARA clerks. A file may be misfiled one or two slots over from its intended location. Some staff members will check around the intended number's file location, while others will not. I tested this once as I received a rejection slip on one file that should have been present (I had seen this same file on a previous visit). The rejection slip said that the file was not found within NARA’s holdings. I requested the very same file the next day and it was delivered to the document room for me to study.

The Genealogical Importance of Civil War Pensions

I have used pension documents to fill in the gaps of my family history. While my great grandmother’s first and last name was misreported to me by family, I found her actual first and maiden names in my great-grandfather’s pension. With other soldiers' files, I learned important dates of birth of family members, the dates and places of marriage, health issues, and much more. You may be able to deduce the psychohistory of your own family because of documentation found in these files. Good luck in your search and happy hunting.