The following article is reprinted from the course listing at "Family Tree University," an online education program from the publishers of Family Tree Magazine:
Especially prior to 1700, people in England used a relatively small variety of first and last names, so you'll need as many clues as possible to separate, say, your John Taylor from all the other John Taylors in England. Identifying your ancestor's place of residence and/or birth is critical. To make sure you're tracing the right person, take note of neighbors, others with the same last name in the same or neighboring towns, even patterns of first names-both in the earliest American records of your ancestor and in possible matches in England.
Because British colonists made up so much of early America, the first-name traditions from back in Merry Old England often continued in the colonies. So this scheme, common especially in the 18th and 19th century, may be useful for sorting out ancestors even on this side of the pond:
In families where this pattern would lead to duplicate names-if both grandparents were named Robert, for example-the parents might skip to the next in line. In this case, the second son could be named after the father. By the 16th century, this English naming pattern was also common in Wales.
Keep in mind, too, that English records routinely abbreviated many common names, such as recording William as Wm. You may also find nicknames, such as Will, Dick, Bess, Betty and Molly; as fans of Shakespeare know, Henry was often called Harry. Some names are even interchangeable in how they are used, such as Edward and Edmond or Elizabeth and Isobel. Similarly, Ann, Hannah and Nancy could all be the same person, and Margaret, Daisy and Peggy are variations of the same name.
To learn more about this and other genealogy research subjects, visit familytreeuniversity.com.
Beth Finch McCarthy