Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fairfax Genealogical Society: Surname Distribution

This week’s blogging prompt is: Talk about highlights and events from your local genealogy society. I had hoped to address this subject by writing about my visit on Tuesday, arranged and sponsored by the Fairfax Genealogical Society, to the National Archives and Records Administration. Unfortunately, snow and cold happened in the Washington, D.C. area and so the field trip did not happen.

So, I decided to write instead about the presentation given at our last Society meeting on 26 February: Surname Distribution, delivered by Leslie Dalley Bouvier. (And this is another twofer, since this is also Celebrate Your Name Week, which I am using as an excuse to talk about names in general.) Leslie spoke about how to use surname distribution in our research and provided some names and locations of both ready-made surname distribution maps and fee-based services. These include Ancestry, which will fill in the maps based on federal censuses if you input the name (the different services use different databases to compile the maps). In Ancestry, you can do these maps in the Learning Center section under Facts About Your Surname: Name Distribution. I did find, however, that they appear to be available only for the 1840, 1880, and 1920 censuses.

Leslie suggested two main uses for these maps: (1) An interesting illustration to add to reports on family research, and (2) a way to get ideas for where to start searching for a difficult family line, adding the caveat that the maps’ usefulness for number (2) would depend on how many different data points were used and the accuracy of the transcription of the names. She also suggests that a researcher compare surnames, including those of ancestors’ neighbors, over time to ascertain whether they might have followed similar migration paths.

This in turn brought up an issue that I have been aware of since getting heavily involved in family research: common names versus uncommon names. For my own research, I have found that the less common names in my family lines have tended to be the ones that have been the subject of the most research/most intensive research, and I think this is because their uniqueness makes it easier to track them and distinguish related versus unrelated lines. And since I choose to research the least researched lines, this means that the main names I am researching are Moore and Lewis, with Smith as my great brick wall. This does not mean that I neglect my Brinlee and Highsmith lines, but I know that a lot of good research has already been done on them and I’ll be filling in the holes (such as the Brinlee trials for murder). So this somewhat limits the usefulness of surname distribution maps in my research.

On the other hand, I have to admit that there are exceptions to this “rule,” which is not really a rule but simply a general trend in the anecdotal evidence that I have. For instance, on my husband’s lines, which are all mid- to late nineteenth century immigrant lines, European surname distribution maps would probably be helpful. One of the brick walls I am having trouble with for his family is Fichtelman(n), which isn’t a common name. This may be a common occurrence for more recent European immigrants, since tracking ancestors back to Europe is usually more difficult, no matter how common or uncommon the name is. And the likelihood of these names being misspelled, especially the uncommon ones, increases that difficulty. So I will probably be using this tool for some of the names in my husband’s family: Koehl, Fichtelmann, Lochner, Terrana, Davi, D’Arco, and Terzo, though perhaps not for Greenberg. And I’ll give Leslie’s tip on the neighbor names a try for my “common name” ancestors.

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