If someone is known by more than one name, put the alternate name or names in parentheses after the surname, preceded by “a.k.a.” (also known as). As an example, John Smith (a.k.a. John Taylor). This situation might occur, for instance, when John Smith had been adopted by a Taylor and was known by both names.
A good rule to adopt is that if you find anything in the record that seems amiss or unusual, note it. It may be the evidence that proves or disproves a link you are trying to establish.
Write down all the names by which a person was known. If he was known by his middle name, or known by initials only, note that, too. Laurence William Holmes has been known as Bill, Will, and Willie. It will be important one day for his descendants to know that, for he may be listed under any of those.
Always note the spelling variations you find. They can be insignificant, a reflection of times when names were spelled phonetically, or they can be important, suggesting that you have information on two different individuals rather than one. (See Genealogy: What's in a Name? for more on spelling variations.)
For names that can be either male or female (such as Gale-Gail, Gene-Jean, Marion-Marian, Frances-Francis, Leslie-Lesley) indicate whether the individual was a man or woman if you can determine that from the document. It eliminates confusion.
If you find an individual with a name usually given to someone of the opposite sex (remember the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue”?), be sure to indicate that in your notes. A number of names once used for either sex have fallen into disuse for males: Eleanor, Mildred, Beverly, and Valentine. The Social Security Administration put together interesting databases of popular baby names by sex from 1880 to the present: www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames. Look there to check the popularity of the names you're working on—or the popularity of your own name in the decade of your birth.
Women and Their Changing Surnames
Women's names present a special problem. You may find women under their maiden (birth) or married name, or even the name of a prior husband. You want to establish a woman's birth name in order to identify her parents, for they are your ancestors, too. List her by that maiden name, and indicate the names of her husbands. In your notes, list Mary Jordan (her maiden name) and show that she was married first to John Jackson and then to Frank Swift. Her full name would properly be shown as Mary (Jordan) Jackson Swift, listing first her given name, followed by her maiden name in parenthesis, followed by the surnames of her subsequent husbands with the latest at the end.
Though the proper full name of a woman includes her maiden name, and all married names, when you refer to her in your narrative, use the name she was known by at the time of the event. If she was already married to Frank Swift when she and her husband moved to Indiana, you would say “Mary Swift and her husband Frank moved to Indiana.”
When you are recording a female on charts, but do not have her maiden name, insert only her first (or given) name. In the preceding example, if you did not know that Jordan was her maiden name, then show her as Mary ( ). If you need to refer to her in your notes, show her as Mary ( ) Jackson Swift, indicating by the blank parenthesis that her maiden name is unknown. When her maiden name is established, you can fill in the blank.
Be careful with women's surnames. The name you find in documents can be a maiden name or a married name. If a woman is widowed (or divorced) and remarries, the surname in the marriage record may be that of the previous husband. Sometimes this is distinguished by the record: “Mrs. Margaret Smith married Richard Carter” indicates that she had a previous marriage to a Smith.
Place Names Can Be Tricky, Too
Place names should be fully identified by writing down the town, county, and state (or the equivalent divisions for foreign countries). These geographic divisions are important in genealogy because many of the records you need are in the towns and counties where your ancestors lived. Because many states have towns and counties of the same name, be sure your notes always indicate the state, too.
As your ancestors moved west, they often named the new area after their old home area. If you don't know their prior residence and they were pioneers to that area, the name of the new town might provide a clue. Among those original settlers of Granville, Licking County, Ohio, were people from Granville in Massachusetts. If your ancestor was one of the first settlers, the name of the new town, named in honor of the old, would be an important clue to a possible prior residence.
If the records you find mention landmarks or geographic features such as creeks or hills or roads, include them in your notes. They may help to distinguish between two different families in the area with the same surname. Abbreviations of place names (except for states) can be confusing later, so write them out.
When you insert dates in your notes, use the format of day, month (spelled out), and four-digit year: 10 January 1988. If you write the date 10/1/88 or 1/10/88, later you or others will not be sure if the date was January tenth or October first, and whether the year was 1888 or 1988.
Sometimes the record is unclear as to the date, or the date is given in two places in the document and there is a discrepancy. Be sure to include these discrepancies in your notes. They may be important later in your research.
Did You Miss Something?
A final word about your notes. Review them at the end of any research session or interview. Check to see if there is anything in your notes that is not clear. You may not have access to that source again; you want to be sure you have it right.