My Ancestor Has Multiple Names. Which Name Do I Use?

Which Names Do You Use on Your Family Tree

Do you ever cringe when someone gets your name wrong? My husband doesn’t because his name is pretty hard to mess up- Andrew and Andy. For me, my mother gave me a name that people rarely say right at first glance- Devon. There’s one way that when pronounced I hear nails scratching down the chalkboard and shudder.

Names are necessary, and in genealogy, names help us find more records and details about our ancestors. When you discover a new ancestor through your research, how do you manage their name as you acquire more records about that ancestor? In other words, as you find records about your ancestor, what name should you use on an online tree’s profile about that ancestor?

When you’re using FamilySearch,, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, or paper records, you have one line for the name of your ancestor. There are additional places to record alternate names, but what do you write in the name blank?

What Do You Put in the Name Blank?

Let’s say you discovered a birth record for your great-grandmother that birth record identifies her parents’ names. Names you have never seen before. Hooray! That’s exciting.

It is exciting, but this is when beginning genealogists often have difficulty. They want to add this new relative to the family tree, but they’re not sure which names to use. When the discover spelling variations, should they change the names? If so, how do they decide which name is the most correct when records conflict?

There are two principle guidelines in genealogy:

  1. Record the name as it appears in the earliest document for the ancestor.
  2. Record all variations of the name.

However, there are problems.

  • As you’re researching an ancestor, you often do not come across the earliest recording of their name. What do you do?
  • The earliest record of the name is suspected to be incorrect even though it pre-dates other documents. What do you do?
  • A child was placed for adoption within the first week of their birth. Their name was changed, and an additional birth record was created with this second given name or surname. What do you do?
  • An individual changed their name at some point in their life (Anglicized their surname, hides from the law, disowns their family or is disowned by their family). What do you do?

The more I research, the more the principle guidelines become roadblocks than assistants. Andy and I have some suggestions for you to consider when you are unsure what name to use.

Suggestions For Deciding Which Names to Use

First, as you research, record a name as it appears on the first record, you discover for the new ancestor. If the first source says Wm Townsley, then write Wm Townsley. Don’t automatically turn Wm into William. What if the name is Williamson, Willingham, or other abbreviation? You can always alter the name as you uncover more records.

If Wm’s wife is Mary Townsley, then only record her first name rather than the likely married name and not the same surname. If you discover later that her maiden name is the same as her husband’s surname, then you can the name into the field at that time. This is particularly the case when working with online trees. If you add Townsley for Mary, computer hints will be generated for Mary Townsley rather than a Mary who married Wm Townsley.

As you research, change the name as you find more complete details. If a birth record names your great-grandma’s father as “S A Thomson,” record S A as the give names. When you discover a census record that indicates S stands for “Steven,” update the given name to Steven. If you uncover another record, and it provides a middle name of “Andy,” then alter the middle name to reflect the full name as Steven Andy Thomson.

As you discover additional records that expand S A Thomson to a full name, update what is recorded on your paper or electronic chart to reflect the more complete name and leave a note that you changed the name based on this new piece of evidence.

Watch Andy’s thoughts on this topic. Do you agree with him or Devon?

What happens when a name conflicts in records?

This is when things become speculative. One strategy is to use the name that person signed in their own hand. An adult knows what their name is and that could be the determination of the ‘top billing’ name while including the alternative names. One such record where individuals signed their names in their own hand is a military draft record.

You can make the case to use the name the parents gave them. If you have a death record indicating that a name was Thomas Michael Sauer and a birth record provides evidence his name was Tomas Mihael Saur, which name do you record in the ‘name’ spot on your genealogy charts or in your online tree? A case can be made that the birth record trumps the death certificate.

However, if a child was adopted shortly after birth never used their birth name, the case could be made that their adopted name receives top billing. In the case of my grandmother, she was born Marie Anderson but was adopted within days of her birth and was forever known as Louise Long. She never referred to herself as Marie Anderson except when she was celebrating all of her names at a birthday party. Top billing goes to Louise, and the name of Marie is listed as an alternative name.

When an ancestor anglicizes their name or modifies it to fit the country they are in, which name do you use? One ancestor is Joseph Geiler. I could anglicize the name to Joseph Geiszler or Geissler, but he didn’t live long enough to have his name lock into one of those variations. Thus, Geiler is the way I spell his name. However, his son was born Henry Geiler but finally locked into Geiszler, and I record that as his adult name.

Whichever name you give top billing, ensure you record your reasoning for the choice. 

Andy and I share more recommendations on which name to use when your ancestor has many in this video.

Consider these suggestions when trying to decide which name to use on your genealogy charts for an ancestor with multiple names. #genealogy #ancestors #beginnerbasics
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Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

4 thoughts on “My Ancestor Has Multiple Names. Which Name Do I Use?

  1. Software products are the limiting factor here, Devon. Ideally, there are three classes of name that should be kept separate, as described in (1) all the accepted names of that person, including their name changes; (2) all the evidential forms, with their misspellings and phonetic attempts; (3) the way we want to label them in our reports/charts, including unnamed infants and unknown people references (e.g. "his grandfather"). Most software forces you to conflate these, and that causes a horrible mess when you have to re-evaluate evidence.

  2. Tony,

    I understand your input and appreciate it greatly. Yet, when working with beginner researchers, their minds still can't comprehend more than one name and will struggle endlessly trying to know what to write in a name spot of any kind. I strive to move them beyond their hurdles so they can keep going.

  3. When I find a person with another name or spelled another way. I put the name in the Also known as box, Birth name in 1st, married in Also known box Anyone with a title, my reason is that they were born with a certain name & the others are what I actually found.

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