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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Standards Help Avoid Confusion
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 30, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

"Standards" is almost as dirty a word as "organization" to some genealogists. They want to do it their way and only their way. I have seen and tried to follow so many different numbering systems that my head sometimes feels like it is hitting against a cement wall. I suppose if I had unlimited hours to spend looking at one source then it wouldn't be a problem, but like you I often must sandwich my own genealogy in between a paying job and a family who don't all share my obsession. I have already talked at length about dates and places in another column last year, but feel there were still some standards being overlooked by many researchers.

Standards help to make it easier to follow the compilation of a family history and understand the information disseminated. You can spend more of your limited time looking for your ancestor rather than trying to figure out how the individuals in the work are organized or related to each other. Too often a brand new numbering system or way of listing the individuals makes it all too easy for us to overlook the very person we need.

Sticking with standards avoids misunderstandings.

What's In a Name?

We have talked at length about how spelling doesn't count when it comes to searching original records for an individual or a surname. However, when it comes to recording that name in your database there are some standards that genealogists do follow.

Womens' names. Let's look at a woman's name first since they tend to have the biggest change in the life of the woman. In some cultures, when the woman marries she takes the surname of her husband. For genealogists this is often the most frustrating thing about researching women, the loss of that maiden name. And while a woman, after marriage, is found in the records under her married name, on your genealogy charts and in your genealogy programs she is listed with her name as it was given at birth, or more appropriately her maiden name.

Name change. A lot depends on why the name was changed. Many celebrities have changed their names completely to either create a persona or to better appeal to the public. As a result these people are known to the general world by one name when in fact they were born under a completely different name. When I first began to compile the celebrity family trees I thought about following standards and recording their names in the database as that with which they were born. I found when doing a tree on Clark Gable in which Carole Lombard was listed by her birth name of Jane Alice Peters, that no one recognized her and I got many e-mails asking why her marriage was not included. So I now enter the celebrity by their recognized name so that it appears on the Web site and then I include a text note on the birth entry with the person's name as it was at birth. A relative of mine, though, who changed his name, remains in my personal database with his birth name and the text note alludes to the name change in adulthood.

Initial record. Often when we first come upon a person in the records we use the name found. This does not always turn out to be the birth name. Since we must enter a name for the person it is natural to enter what we have so far. Once I find the birth record or baptism record or some other resource with the person's full name, though, I will change the name in my database. If the difference in the name is dramatic, I will make a note somewhere for that person as to the other name I have found that person listed by in the records.

Junior or Not

Recently a naming issue came up that had me thinking for a moment. An individual is born as John Smith, Jr., since his father was also named John Smith. As John Smith, Jr. reached adulthood and his father died, he dropped the Jr. In recording John Smith, Jr., in the database which was then shared, I was asked by others familiar with the individual why I had listed him with the Jr. in his name, pointing out that he had dropped that and I should also.

Again, this goes back to what name was he given when he was born? The fact that at a later date he dropped the Jr. in his name does not negate the fact that at one point he was known as John Smith, Jr. Even though his son also tried to drop the Jr. from his name, he was not as successful and so when he had a son and gave him the same name, he became John Smith III.

By the same token, I have been working in records, usually in colonial New England for my own research, in which the records use terms such as junior and senior not to show familial relationships but almost as a way of distinguishing John Smith the younger from John Smith the older. In such a case, my database lists him as John Smith, since that was his name when he was born. Understanding that the records may list him as John Smith, Jr. though, is something for my notes or research tasks so that I do not overlook him as I go through the records.

One other example where Jr. was not used was in a Bailey line of mine. I have three generations of Nathan Bailey. However, none of these men were named Nathan Bailey, Jr. when they were born. So in my genealogy they are all listed as Nathan Bailey and I rely on their dates of birth and death to distinguish them. It may be a little confusing when I see them in an alphabetical list, but when I view them in a tree chart or a narrative genealogy report I know who they are and have not altered their names in any way justy to make things easier for me.

Numbering Systems

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say they have created their own numbering system, I could invest in the aspirin that it often takes to get over the headache I get when using the creative numbering systems in published family histories. There are three easy-to-follow systems that all genealogy programs can use in generating a genealogy report. So often, though, people want to create their own system. While it may make perfect sense to the person who created the system, too often it is almost impossible to track back through the generations when someone uses the research later on. There have been times when if it weren't for the index of names at the back of a family book I would never have found the right page for the individual in question showing them as an adult and then as a child.

Ahnentafel System. This system is designed to assign numbers showing ancestors. It is the only one of the three systems that takes a lineage back instead of forward. In this system, the person in the first generation is listed as person number 1. The next generation shows father as person 2 and mother as person 3. The children for this couple are listed with roman numerals, and the person from generation one is listed witha numeric 1 to the left of his place in the order of children born. You can use the numbers to follow back to the first person you descend from - usually going forward in the book, as you get further back in the generations.

NGS Quarterly and the Register. Both of these numbering systems takes an individual and then lists the descendants of that individual from generation to genderation. Most published family histories use this approach and, as such, either of these numbering systems would work well for them. The numbering begins with the first person in the tree, which in this case is the oldest ancestor, and then the numbers go up as the generations come forward to the present time. The biggest difference is that the Register style assigns a numeric number to only those children of a couple who are carried forward into the next generation because they have children of their own. The NGS Quarterly style assigns a numeric number to each person mentioned, including all the children of a couple, and then puts a plus sign to the left of those individuals who are carried forward to the next generation because they had children.

In Conclusion

Standards help us to avoid confusion. They help us to understand how people are related by using established numbering systems when publishing. More importantly, when it comes to names, they let us know the name of the person as they were born and therefore the name under which we are most likely to find legal records. Newspaper articles or other biographical resources may not list the ancestor with the official, and legally recognized, birth name, so it is important to make a note of any name changes, but it is best to keep a person with the name they were given at birth.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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